Kamala Sohonie: Breaking All Barriers



In 1933, the campus of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the scientific fraternity in India was shaken up. A young woman Kamala Sohonie stood against Nobel Laureate Physicist C V Raman, demanding that she be allowed to work at the IISc.

Kamala was born in 1911-1912 into a highly-educated family. Her father, Narayan Bhagwat, and uncle, Madhavrao Bhagwat, were among the first batch of chemistry students to graduate from the IISc. Kamala followed suit and chose to study science and make a career in it. After finishing school, she enrolled herself in the BSc (Physics and Chemistry) course at Bombay University.

After graduating, she applied to work as a research student in Dr. C V Raman’s Lab at the IISc. But she was denied admission. Despite being high up on the merit list, it seems Raman, who was also the director of IISc at that time, was stubbornly against having female students working under him.

C V Raman
C V Raman|Wikimedia Commons

But that didn't stop Kamala. She demanded reasons for his decision to deny her admission, and kept doing a Gandhian-style dharna in front of Raman’s office. With no strong official justification to back his order, Raman had to retract. He agreed to keep her for a year on probation, but with some very stringent and unfair restrictions.


Kamala protested CV Raman’s decision to deny her admission with a Gandhian-style dharna in front of his office

Her work would be recognized only when Raman was satisfied with its quality, and he also stipulated that she worked at night, so as to not prove a disturbance to the male researchers! Twenty-two year old Kamala accepted it all, but certainly not without indignation. Years later, at a function organised by the Indian Women Scientists’ Association, she is reported to have said:

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. 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 manner?

IISc Bangalore
IISc Bangalore|Wikimedia Commons

During her time at the IISc, Kamala found a guide in M. Sreenivasaiah , one of the pioneers of microbiological research in India. Under him, she worked on proteins found in milk, pulses, and legumes. In 1936, she submitted her research and received her MSc degree, with distinction. Further, she was also offered a scholarship to pursue her Ph.D. at Cambridge University in the UK. It was after Kamala’s success, that Raman decided to open the doors of IISc to women from the academic year 1937-38.


It was after Kamala’s success, that Raman decided to open the doors of IISc to women

In Cambridge, Kamala worked under renowned scientists like Dr. Derek Richter, one of the founding fathers of the science of brain chemistry, and Dr. Robin, a plant biochemist known for proving that oxygen is evolved during the light-requiring steps of photosynthesis.

She also earned a fellowship to work with Nobel Laureate Dr. Frederick Hopkins, whose landmark discovery of vitamins had revolutionized the field of nutritional science. As part of her research, she found that every cell of plant tissue also contains the enzyme ‘cytochrome C’, which is involved in respiration of plant cells. This was an original discovery for which she got her Ph.D. degree. It has also been reported that she wrote the thesis within 14 months and it was only 40 pages long!

Dr. Derek Richter, Dr. Robin Hill, Nobel Laureate Dr. Frederick Hopkins
Dr. Derek Richter, Dr. Robin Hill, Nobel Laureate Dr. Frederick Hopkins|Wikimedia Commons

Kamala returned to India in 1939 and took up many responsibilities. After a short stint at the newly-opened Department of Biochemistry at Lady Harding College, New Delhi, as its Head, she became the assistant director of the Nutrition Research Laboratory, Coonoor, where she focused on the effects of vitamins.


Kamala’s work helped understand the nutritional needs of Indians

Around this time, Kamala married Madhav Sohonie, an actuary by profession, and moved to Bombay in 1947. Here, she joined the city’s Institute of Science as a professor. Along with her students, she made substantial discoveries carrying out biochemical studies on 3 major groups of food items consumed by the rural poor, establishing their nutritive values.

Based on the above work, President Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who was looking at ways to utilize the sizable proportion of palm trees in India and make it into a organized industry, asked Kamala to conduct research on neera, a drink made from sweet palm nectar, legumes, and rice flour, and to study how it could meet the nutritional needs of Indians.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, 1958
Dr. Rajendra Prasad, 1958|Wikimedia Commons

Kamala found that neera contains sizable amounts of A and C vitamins and iron, and that vitamin C can survive the concentration of neera into palm jaggery [a sweetener] and molasses. This discovery laid the groundwork for using jaggery and molasses as cheap dietary supplements.


Kamala’s research on the neera drink helped combat malnourishment

Her finding also had a humanitarian benefit as these days, neera is often used to combat malnourishment and provide strength during pregnancy. As an advisor to Bombay’s Aarey Milk Project Factory, she also developed a protocol that prevented the curdling of milk.

Apart from her many scientific achievements, Kamala was also a prolific science writer and published a good number of books in Marathi for young students. Besides these, she wrote several papers on consumers’ rights and served as President of Consumer Guidance Society of India from 1982-1983.

Kamala’s exemplary work led to her winning the prestigious National Award for Excellence and Contribution to Science in 1997. She passed away one year later at the age of 86.

Today women are in the forefront of science and some like Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw have also set up world renowned companies like Biocon. The success of so many, is thanks in part to women like Kamala Sohonie, who fought to sit on the high table and proved their mettle with their work, which shone through!


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