Saturday, 7 March 2015

Women in Plant Sciences: Nothing Stopped them to Pursue their Interests

Deepika Sharma
BSc(Hons) Botany, 2nd Year
University Of Delhi

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” - Virginia Woolf

Until I started writing this article, I didn’t know that patriarchy was so deeply rooted in our society that it didn’t even spare academics. There are women who faced it closely. These were women who wanted to study, research and discover. But they were refrained, stopped, discouraged merely because they were WOMEN. Despite of limited resources and technology in previous times, didn’t stop them to pursue their interests. 

Most of them were not even acknowledged for their work and contributions. 

Starting with Kamala Sohonie, who stood out in the crowd, she wanted to study and hence applied to the IISc for a research fellowship and was rejected because she was a female. Prof. C.V. Raman, then IISc Director was against having women students. This rejection didn’t stop her. She went on to become first Indian woman to get a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. She further went to Cambridge. While at Cambridge, she found that every cell of a plant tissue contained the enzyme ‘cytochrome C’ which was involved in the oxidation of all plant cells.

Janaki Ammal another star in the plant Sciences. In her family, girls were ear marked to study arts. This didn’t bother Ammal in any way. She pursued her interest in Botany. She went overseas, did her master’s from university of Michigan and also carried out various researches and studies on chromosome of a wide range of garden plants. The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants which she wrote jointly with C. D. Darlington in 1945 was a compilation that incorporated much of her own work on many species. She also studied Cytology and Ethnobotany. Age and retirement never limited her. She continued studying about medicinal plants after her retirement and continued publishing her work. In 2000, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India instituted the National Award of Taxonomy in her name in 2000. The E.K. Janaki Ammal Award for taxonomy was instituted in the year 1999.

Sipra Guha Mukherjee discovered the technique to produce haploid pollen plants through anther culture using Datura innoxa. She was an expert in the plant tissue culture and plant biotechnology. She carried out studies on auxins, glycoxylases and phytochrome reductase of nitrate reductase as well as DNA satellites in Brassica. She was in fact the one who raised her concern for lower ratio of women to men in the field of Plant Biology.

Asima Chatterjee researched the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry. Her most notable work includes the research on Vinca alkaloids. In addition, she also developed anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She wrote about the work on medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent.

Katherine Esau is another one of the most celebrate women botanist. Her books her books Plant Anatomy and Anatomy of Seed Plants is still followed and recommended. She received the National Medal for science from President George Bush in 1989. “She absolutely dominated the plant biology even at the age of 99”-according to Peter Raven, director of Anatomy and Morphology, Missouri Botanical garden on her death.

Another female botanist Mary Elizabeth Barber was the first to discover Aloe barberae. This was named after her as an honour. Today, this plant is widely used in cosmetic formulations. All the females must have been blessing her for this discovery. Barber made substantial contributions to botanical science of the era through her collections and scientific observations of South African flora and fauna. This resulted in several plant species being named after her.

Knowles published more than thirty scientific papers on a wide range of botanical subjects. Her major work was The Lichens of Ireland which added over 100 species of Lichen to the Irish List and recorded the distribution of the eight hundred species identified in Ireland

Eileen Barnes was a botanical artist known for accurate depictions of Ireland's plant. Her works have been featured in numerous books and monographs, and still highly regarded today, especially her Sedums and Sempervivums. She even helped the botanist Matilda Knowles, creating models for the museum's exhibits. Her work was highly regarded by naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who named one of his plants after her (Sedum barnesianum).

Eileen and Knowles remind of a phrase that goes on like – Behind every successful woman there is woman herself.

Winifred Elsie Brenchley, an agricultural botanist, was the first woman in the UK to break into the male dominated sphere of agricultural science.

Joyce Winifred Vickery was an Australian botanist who specialised in taxonomy and forensic botany. She solved the case of Graham Thorne kidnap and murder in 1960. The case was solved largely because of Joyce’s analysis on plant matter and soil matter.

Women were always believed and meant to do only household errands, raise children and cook food for their husbands. These women and many others like them opted to study without failing to manage their responsibility. Such women have proved to be strong, bold and an inspiration to other girls and boys. While writing and searching for information to write this article I felt that the present generation of students, especially female students, is lucky. Few decades ago, girls had to struggle so much. They had to fight against the narrow mind set of society. But passion and hard work of these women scientists not only helped in the advancement of Sciences but also hushed everyone who constantly made women feel inferior or weak. These contributions not only shaped the studies and researches but also shaped the mindset of the society. Nothing stopped these women to pursue their academic pursuits. 


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