The early and mid-20th centuries were challenging times for women who wanted to chart a career, especially in the male-dominated world of scientific research. Here are two plucky Indian women scientists who broke the glass ceiling and whose work we benefit from even today.
Asima Chatterjee: Finding Cures
Being inspired by the best teachers is crucial for every student, but what if your instructors were among India’s top scientists like Prafulla Chandra Roy, Satyendra Nath Bose and P K Bose? Asima Chatterjee’s famous mentors and her natural flair for science helped her become one of India’s most outstanding organic chemists of her time.
Chatterjee drew the world’s attention to the power of medicinal plants and developed two powerful drugs based on this research. One is the anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56, and the other an anti-malarial drug, both patented and marketed by pharmaceutical companies.
Her greatest contribution, though, is her work on cancer treatment.
– Chatterjee demonstrated how vinca alkaloids, compounds from the Madagascar periwinkle plant, can be used in chemotherapy treatment as they slow or halt the growth of cancer cells.
Chatterjee’s interest in medicinal plants was probably influenced by her father, who was a medical doctor with a special interest in botany. She grew up in a middle-class family in Calcutta, where she also pursued her higher studies. In 1944, she became the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university, the University of Calcutta.
For three years, between 1947 and 1950, the young scientist collaborated with colleagues in the US and Zurich, which is when she developed an interest in biologically active alkaloids, which became a lifelong academic passion.
Chatterjee authored 400 papers that have been published in journals all over the world. Students continue to benefit from her genius as her work has been included in textbooks. She is also the first woman recipient of the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1975.
Janaki Ammal: Sweet Success
Every time you sip a tall glass of sugarcane juice, spare a thought for a brilliant and gutsy woman without whom this thirst-quencher wouldn’t taste quite as sweet. Janaki Ammal was India’s first woman botanist, and she created the indigenous sugarcane hybrid that we savour today.
– Ammal developed hybrid varieties of sweet sugarcane, so that India had to no longer rely on imports from Indonesia.
She conducted her path-breaking research at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore.
Born in Kerala in 1897, Ammal is the first Indian woman in the US to earn a PhD in Botany, awarded by the University of Michigan in 1931. She chose scholarship over marriage so that she could focus on her work. It was a courageous choice given that the traditional Indian society of the time frowned on single women.
Probably more at home in research institutes abroad than in India, the young botanist spent six years at the John Innes Centre in England. After that, she worked for six years at the world-renowned Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in England.
During this time, Ammal studied cross-breeding in magnolias, a remarkable variety of evergreen flowers. To honour her work, the institute has named a variety of magnolias after her. It’s called ‘Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal’. Remarkably, the shrubs still bloom on the campus at Wisley!
But Ammal’s work was far from done. In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited her to join the Botanical Survey of India to revitalise it. Her interests also turned towards agriculture and food security, and Ammal supported many environmental movements in Kerala, like the Save Silent Valley campaign.
Ammal has lent her name to a rare plant with curative properties found in the Western Ghats in Kerala. Named ‘Janakia arayalpatra’, it was first described by the Botanical Survey of India in 1978.
Janaki Ammal, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1977, died on 7th February 1984, in Chennai. Her name is etched on scholarships in India and abroad, on foods we consume, and in gardens and forests, where her heart truly lay.
Both Asima Chatterjee and Janaki Ammal not only committed themselves to the betterment of our lives but they did it in a time when laboratories and libraries saw few women. They forged ahead anyway, and left a lasting legacy.