Kamala Sohonie

Sci-Illustrate
Mar 24 · 10 min read

The Indian scientist who refused to let her gender hold her back, delving into researching vitamins and nutritional values of foods consumed by the poorest Indian diets.


Kamala Sohonie, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Harsho Mohan & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.


When the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was established in 1911, there were plans for residences for staff, servants, police, and students. There were, however, no plans for female students. It would be almost a decade before IISc enrols its first female student, “Miss M. M. Mehta”, followed by “Miss R. K. Christie” in 1922. It would be another decade before the third woman, first under the Indian Director of IISc, C. V. Raman, was allowed in, a “Miss K Bhagvat”, later known as Dr. Kamala Sohonie.

Early Life

Kamala was born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh to a family of distinguished chemists. Her father and uncle were both alumni of IISc (known as the Tata Institute of Sciences at the time) in Bangalore. Kamala was a curious child, growing up admiring her father and uncle. It only felt natural to her to pursue chemistry in higher education. She studied at the prestigious St. Xavier’s College and topped her chemistry and physics examinations from the Bombay University earning her BSc in 1933.

For her, the automatic next step was to follow her father and uncle’s footsteps. She applied to the IISc for a research fellowship; sure that she had the qualifications. However, she was met with a stout rejection, her first blow. She couldn’t believe it, especially since it was on the basis that Prof. C. V. Raman, the Director of IISc, did not consider women competent enough to pursue research.

The fight for equity

Kamala was not a woman to sit on the sidelines. She demanded he provide written reasons for his decision to deny her admission, and sat in front of his office in protest. With multiple requests from her family members, her refusal to accept a rejection, and no strong official justification to backup his order, Raman had to retract! But this was on 3 conditions:

(1) She will be probation for 1 year until Raman deemed her work worthy,

(2) She would work whenever her guide required her to, irrespective of time of day, and

(3) She will not spoil the environment for other researchers (i.e. she will not be a “distraction” to the male students).

Kamala felt violated and shamed, but she accepted Raman’s conditions. She would later say, “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn’t admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?”

Professor Srinivasaiah was Kamala’s mentor in IISc. He was a man of discipline and rules; he helped instil a sense of discipline in her. Kamala carved a niche out for herself studying the nutritional elements in milk, pulses and legumes. A year into her MSc, Kamala proved her worth to Raman, who not only allowed her to stay on as a student, but also opened the doors to other women in the institute. Not only did Kamala prove Raman wrong about women’s abilities, she also fought for women’s living quarters on campus. Along with 2 other women, Kamala wrote a letter to Raman and his wife, then the Honorary Warden of Women’s Hostel, requesting changes to security and making it a permanent facility for more women. Kamala graduated with distinction with her MSc in Biochemistry in 1936.

Working Abroad

After her MSc, Kamala was invited to UK’s Cambridge University to work under the renowned neurochemist, Dr. Derek Richter. Richter recognized her zeal to do research quickly, and provided her with the space and resources she needed. When Richter left, Kamala continued her work under Robin Hill studying the enzyme “Cytochrome C” in potatoes. She found the enzyme present in every cell of the plant tissue and that it is involved in oxidation of all plant cells. This was an original discovery embracing the entire plant kingdom! Later it was established that this enzyme is responsible for energy generation in not only plants, but also in animals including human beings.

Her work and passion did not go unnoticed. Upon encouragement from her peers, she applied for a fellowship with Frederick G. Hopkins, who had won the Nobel Prize for his work on vitamins. She was accepted, and under his guidance, she wrote her thesis on the cytochrome C in a mere 14 months after starting at Cambridge University, with her dissertation only 40 typed pages long! This was a major departure from the usual long PhD submissions, earning her a PhD in 1938–1939.

Back to India

Kamala Bhagvat during her tenure as faculty at Nutrition Research Laboratory, Coonoor (mid-1940s). Image Source: Anirban Mitra article

While Kamala had multiple job offers from several pharmaceuticals, she returned to India in 1939. She wanted to contribute to the fight for independence. She was appointed as Professor and Head of the Department of Biochemistry at Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi upon her arrival. After a short stint, she joined as Assistant Director of Nutrition Research Lab in Coonoor where she conducted research into the roles of vitamins in nutrition.

Kamala with her husband, Madhav Sohonie. Image Source: Anirban Mitra article

In 1947, Kamala married M. V. Sohonie, an actuary, and moved to Bombay. She joined the Royal Institute of Science as a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, and worked on the nutritional aspects of legumes. During this period, Kamala and her students conducted important research on three groups of food items that are consumed by the financially disadvantaged people of India.

Upon the suggestion of then-President of India, Rajendra Prasad, Kamala started to work on “neera”, a popular drink made from sweet palm nectar, legumes and rice flour. She found significant quantities of Vitamin A, C and iron in neera that would be retained even if the drink was made into jaggery and molasses to increase shelf life. Later studies indicated that the inclusion of neera in the diets of malnourished adolescent children and pregnant women from tribal communities as an inexpensive dietary supplement led to significant improvements in health. For her exemplary work, Kamala was awarded the Rashtrapati Award, and appointment to as the Director of Institute of Science; a position believed to be 4 years delayed due to the existing gender bias in the scientific community.

Beyond the Lab

Kamala was known to be a quiet unassuming woman who was a prolific writer. She authored several scientific books and wrote many books and papers in Marathi. She was one of the 9 women who set up the Consumer Guidance Society, a society first of its kind which significantly contributed towards quality and measurements of food testing in the market. Kamala may have retired in 1969, but for the next 2 decades, she continued to work with the Consumer Guidance Society. She even developed a kit for housewives to test the purity of their food items, raising awareness of ongoing corrupt practices.

In 1997, she received the National Award of Excellence and Contribution to Science. She passed away in 1998, a few days after collapsing at an event held by the Indian Council of Medical Research to honour her. She was a woman who lived life to the fullest, based off her passions and desires. She emerged victorious against challenges she faced, whether in her research or gender disparities. A loving wife, mother and researcher, she continually gave back to her family, students and society.


Timeline:

1912 Born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh

1933 Graduates with BSc in Chemistry and Physics from Bombay University

1933 Begins fight agains C. V. Raman for entry into IISc for MSc in Biochemistry

1934 Begins as MSc candidate, but on probation

1936 Graduates with distinction with a MSc in Biochemistry

1937 Moves to Cambridge University to begin work under Derek Richter

1939 Graduates with a PhD in Biochemistry and moves back to India

1947 Marries M. V. Sohonie and moves to Bombay

1969 Retires but continues her work with the Consumer Guidance Society

1997 Receives the National Award of Excellence and Contribution to Science

1998 Passes away after collapsing at an event in her honour


Sources:



About the author:

DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY

Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.


About the artist:

HARSHO MOHAN CHATTORAJ

Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories

Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is a graphic novelist and illustrator based in Kolkata, India. He’s worked in the comic medium for fifteen years, on individual projects and for clients in India, UK, Australia and the US. Some of his recent graphic novels include ‘ Ghosts of Kingdoms Past’, ‘Destiny Awakes’, ‘Pagla Shaib’s Grave’, ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’ and ‘Kolkata Kaleidoscope’. Harsho also has worked as a journalist, visualizer, storyboard artist, voice-over artist and promo producer, but has always been a fan of comics since his first dosage of ‘Asterix’ at the wee age of five.


About this series:

These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.

There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.

These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.

These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.

Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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