Written by Megha Harish.
Following the successful launch of India’s Mangalyaan (Mars Rover) by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in November 2013, there has been a surge in recognition of the women who contributed to this effort: India’s first inter-planetary mission. Gradually, similar efforts are being made to recover the stories of Indian women scientists in the twentieth-century who were pioneers in their fields, such as the publication of Lilavati’s Daughters; a collection of biographical essays on Indian women scientists by the Women in Science wing of the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS).
Post-independence India saw the rise of a Nehruvian ‘nation-building’ vocabulary. Part of this new India’s development process included a ‘need for science’ and men such as Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, and Shanti Bhatnagar were given key responsibilities by the government. However, women (and women scientists particularly) were excluded from this narrative. This piece focuses on the work of R. Rajalakshmi and Kamala Bhagvat, and the ways in which they used their work in biochemistry, home-science, and beyond to contribute to the nation.
It is extremely heartening to see women rising to the heights of scientific research in the space programme. One hopes that the stories of these scientists at ISRO, alongside the stories of the pioneering women who began to break into the academy in the twentieth-century, will contribute to reducing the existing gender-disparity in STEM.
Rajalakshmi (1926-2007) was an interdisciplinary scientist, who first studied maths and physics, followed by a master’s degree in philosophy, a PhD in Psychology at McGill University, and a lifetime of service in the departments of Home Science and Biochemistry at the University of Baroda. It is unsurprising that her two children have become well-respected scientists in the international community, with her son, Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009. Rajalakshmi writes in an autobiographical chapter of being shattered by Gandhi’s martyrdom. He was both an ‘idol’ and represented an ‘ideal’ for her, she calls it the most ‘profound grief’ of her life. It is likely that this ideal reinforced her desire to make her knowledge, acquired abroad, accessible and applicable to an Indian public. She writes of years of field work in rural communities as reinforcing her belief that the progress of the middle-classes is meaningless until there is an improvement in the quality of life of those who live below subsistence levels. ‘It is high time that the educated elite showed a… greater concern in removing disparities. At least part of our research has been motivated by such concern, and I do hope we can intensify our efforts in this direction.’
These were not empty words. One of Rajalakshmi’s most significant publications, the book Applied Nutrition, aims to make principles of nutrition applicable and relevant in the context of Indian diets, available grains, vegetables, herbs, etc. Her preface to the book, published in 1969 emphasises that though the ‘conditions prevailing in India and other developing countries are so different from those prevailing in the affluent countries of the west,’ the universal ideas of nutrition are never translated out of the Eurocentric context in which they were conceived. She was keen to bridge that gap and her book seeks to apply existing scientific knowledge in the field of nutrition to local conditions.’
Rajalakshmi’s book also includes an appendix with the ‘Scientific Names of the Foodstuffs with Their Hindi Versions’ ensuring that her book Applied Nutrition really can be applied. This is an alphabetic list of the foods cited in her book including common ingredients whose English names are far less common such as hing and supari (asafoetida and areca nut). She wrote a new preface to the second edition in 1974, and in the interim of five-years the home science field seems to have changed significantly, with international organisations acknowledging that local foods, new combinations, and diets without as much animal-based food becoming ‘quite the vogue…I like to believe that the book (has)… contributed in some small measure for this change in climate.’
Similarly, Kamala Bhagvat’s work also transposed knowledge from European to Indian contexts. Kamala (1911-1998) was a biochemist, and the first Indian woman to gain a doctoral degree in the sciences in the U.K., with her research at the University of Cambridge. Soon after returning to India, she was appointed Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the Institute of Science in Bombay, and was later Director of the Institute. She summarises the three main research projects of her career in an autobiographical chapter and what is immediately visible is that all three centre the Indian experience.
The first project was on legumes (food group including peas, beans, lentils, etc.), which is a key supplier of protein in Indian diets– their properties were studied extensively. Certain types of legumes were proven to reduce the rate of breakdown of proteins within the body, others contained haemagglutinins, which could also cause blood clots. The discovery that legumes may contain enzymes with these adverse effects, some of them even toxic, was a substantial and significant one. The second project, undertaken on the recommendation of President Rajendra Prasad, was the biochemical investigation of neera, which Kamala considered to be ‘India’s national drink’ at the time. Neera was found to contain sizeable amounts of vitamins B and C, and iron in stable forms. It could act as a cheap and easily producible supplement to the ‘poor Indian diet.’ Finally, Kamala also led a research project on the nutritive qualities of paddy flour (dhanata). After experimentation, it was concluded that eating rice as flour as opposed to in its rice form, where 40 percent of the grain is lost due to breakage, while polishing, or as husk would enrich the diet. Dhanata contained valuable vitamins and minerals. Kamala explains, ‘these findings were valuable (economically and nutritionally) … to the people of India and to all the rice-eating people of the world.
Kamala writes of having been satisfied with her research throughout her career, despite having been overlooked for promotions, conferences, and other activities. After retirement, she remained active in the scientific community, campaigning for consumer rights in India, and writing and publishing science books for younger students. Her books were written in Marathi, using the local language to promote scientific awareness outside those sections of society literate in English.
We see here that Indian women scientists who started their careers in the 1930s and 40s made immense contributions to the development of the sciences in India. There continues to be a long way to go, with female enrollment in scientific learning institutions still being fewer than male (markedly so in non-biological sciences), and female membership in the Indian academies of science being even lower. It is extremely heartening to see women rising to the heights of scientific research in the space programme. One hopes that the stories of these scientists at ISRO, alongside the stories of the pioneering women who began to break into the academy in the twentieth-century, will contribute to reducing the existing gender-disparity in STEM fields.
Megha Harish is a recent graduate from the MPhil programme in South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. This piece is an adapted excerpt from an MPhil thesis ‘(In)visible Legacies’ which outlines the stories and scientific contributions of E. K. Janaki Ammal, Kamala Bhagvat (later Sohonie), and R. Rajalakshmi, three preeminent Indian women scientists of the twentieth century. She tweets @megha_harish. Image Credit: CC by Indian Women Scientist/Flickr.