Saturday, 7 March 2015

Kamala Sohonie - Woman, Who Established the Nutritive Value of the Plants, Consumed by Poor People

Ritesh Kumar
Senior Research Fellow, NICRA (Mango) Project
ICAR Research Complex for Eastern Region
Research Centre, Plandu, Ranchi-834010
Jharkhand, India

Historically, women have always lagged behind that of men in education and it is pretty well documented. Science and technology have always been considered ‘masculine’ for a long time. The social norms, societal structure, relationship between family and work, and the organizational processes of scientific institutions have created a series of inter-related problems for women in science. After overcoming all the barriers and passing many rapids, Dr. Kamala Sohonie became the ‘Woman in Science’. A firm believer in Mahatma Gandhi, Kamala refused to accept this refusal based on gender bias and became the first Indian woman to get a PhD in a scientific discipline. 

She carried out detailed biochemical studies on three major groups of food items consumed by the rural poor and established their nutritive values. 

Kamala was born in 1912 in a family where her father (Narayanrao Bhagwat) and brother (Madhavrao) were distinguished chemists. She graduated from the Bombay University in chemistry in 1933. Although topping the university merit list, little did she know that brilliance and family support alone were not enough to ensure her entry into male-dominated science. It was not so easy for her to get an admission in the Bangalore institute for further research. Sir C.V. Raman, the renowned physicist, an illustrious scientist and Nobel Laureate, denied her the admission to postgraduate course in chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) on the ground that she was a woman and was dead against having women students. But she was altogether a different stuff and decided to do a satyagraha at Raman’s office. Her dedication to work in was fulfilled and she was admitted. Prof. Raman granted her conditional admission, that for one full year she would be on probation; meaning that she could work but that work would not be recognized until the director was satisfied about its quality. 

Kamala was upset, but accepted. Later, she recounted, “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?”

Kamala crossed first hurdle in her pursuit of science in the year 1933 and at IISc, Bangalore, she worked under Shri. Sreenivasayya. A year later, satisfied with Kamala’s work, Raman allowed her to do regular research in biochemistry. It was also a landmark year as by her dedication and devotion, Dr. Raman started allowing women students into the Institute. This was another victory for Kamala, and through her for other aspiring Indian women scientists.

Kamala Sohonie
In her masters, she worked on proteins in milk, pulses and legumes and was the first person to work on pulse proteins. She submitted her research to Bombay University and received her M. Sc. degree. She went then to Cambridge University and first worked in the laboratory of Dr. Derik Richter. Her zeal to work was recognised and she was offered a spare table to work during the day, where Richter himself would at night when she left.

After Dr Richter left to work elsewhere, Kamala continued her work under Dr. Robin Hill on potatoes and she found that every cell of plant tissue also contains the enzyme “cytochrome C” and that cytochrome C is involved in oxidation of all plant cells. This was an original discovery embracing the entire plant kingdom for which she got her Ph. D. degree from Cambridge University. Her PhD degree is remarkable in many ways as her research and writing of the thesis was done in less than 14 months, and her thesis consisted only of 40 typewritten pages.

Kamala got two scholarships also which helped her in fulfilling her hunger for science. The first one was in the Sir William Dwan Institute of Biochemistry at the Cambridge University and worked with Nobel Laureate Prof. Fredrick Hopkins in the areas of biological oxidation and reduction. The second scholarship was an American travelling fellowship which enabled Kamala to meet eminent scientists in Europe.

After her PhD, she returned to India and worked for various institutions including Lady Hardinage College, New Delhi as professor and head of the newly opened Department of Bio-chemistry, Assistant Director of the Nutrition Research Lab, Coonoor, Professor of Bio-chemistry in the newly opened Biochemistry Department at (Royal) Institute of Science, Bombay.

During her service to science in the country, she worked on effect of vitamins, nutritional aspects of Neera ( sap extracted from the inflorescence of various species of toddy palms), pulses, as well as Dhan (paddy) on improving the quality of their products. Kamala along with her students worked on three major groups of food items consumed by the rural poor and established their nutritive values. The subjects of her research were of great relevance to Indian societal needs as these food items were consumed by the poorest people. Her work on Neera was started on a suggestion from the then president Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Later her students worked on the same for almost 10-12 years, and showed that introduction of Neera in the diet of tribal malnourished adolescent children and pregnant women, resulted in significant improvement in their overall health. Kamala Sohonie received the Rashtrapati Award for this work.

Even at the Institute of Science, Bombay, she was kept away from her rightful position as Director of the Institute for four full years (maybe as she was a woman) but finally was given that post. Dr. Derik Richter, her first guide at Cambridge, remarked that she “made history by being the first lady Director of such a big science institute.”

Kamala was an active member of the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) and in 1982-83 she was elected as the President of the CGSI and she wrote many articles on consumer safety for their magazine Keemat.

She passed at the age of 84, in the year 1998, during a felicitation ceremony by ICMR in New Delhi. Kamala Sohonie (although a woman) lived a full life. She was successful in her chosen career, as a research scientist, and as a teacher. Kamala Sohonie’s life symbolized the struggle waged by the pioneering Indian women scientists. 


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