10 Women Impact Gurus Who Made It as Indian Scientists Despite the Odds

By: Divya Kilikar

Published On: February 17, 2018

It’s not often we cherish the Indian woman scientist, despite her many contributions. In 2014, ISRO’s efforts sent an Indian satellite into orbit around Mars, making us the very first country in the world to reach Mars in its first attempt. While the country celebrated this extraordinary feat, what they realised, only in hindsight, was that there were 8 women scientists behind this mission.

The above photograph shows women scientists of ISRO adorned in traditional saris celebrating their achievement. The photograph went viral on social media, for the first time challenging the widely held perception of the Indian Scientist as male.

When asked to name a woman scientist, most of us will remember Marie Curie, but we all go blank when it comes to Indian women scientists. Let’s take a moment to cheer for the Indian woman scientist who has managed to make many significant contributions, despite the odds against her.

Here are 10 Indian women scientists who proved to be true impact gurus and breaked through the male-dominated world of science.

1. Anandi Joshi

First Indian woman to study medicine in America!

Born in 1865, a difficult and restricting time for women all around the world, Anandi lived a life that was far from ease and comfort. When her family began struggling with their deteriorating financial condition, she was married off at the age of nine to a man twenty years older.

At the age of 14, she had her first and only child, who died ten days later due to a lack of quality medical care. This incident inspired her to make a difference in Indian healthcare. With her husband’s encouragement, Anandi went to America at the age of 19 and enrolled at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. After her move, her health worsened and soon enough, she contracted tuberculosis. Despite her condition, Anandi finished her degree and returned to India to be appointed the physician-in-charge of the female ward at a hospital in Kohlapur. Unfortunately, she died the following year.

2. Janaki Ammal

Created a new type of sugarcane, she is the reason your sugar is sweeter today!

Janaki Ammal was a botanist credited with evolving a kind of sugarcane that was sweeter than its older varieties. Born in a family of 13 in 1897, her parents, the illegitimate daughter of a British General and a Kerala sub-judge encouraged their girl children to pursue the fine arts. However, Janaki chose botany. In 1931, Janaki became the first woman to obtain a PhD in Botany in the U.S.

At the University of Michigan, she worked with the head of the Department of Botany, another female scientist. She also evolved a cross called the “Janaki Brengal”, a type of eggplant. Soon after obtaining her PhD, she returned to India and was appointed the Director-General of the Botanical Survey of India.

3. Kamala Sohonie

Denied admission at IISc because she was a woman, went on to get her PhD from Cambridge.

After graduating with a degree in chemistry from Bombay University in 1933, she applied for a research fellowship to the Indian Institute of Science. Dr C.V. Raman, the IISc Director then, rejected her application simply because she was a woman!

After a little persuasion, she was granted admission and went on to earn an MSc in Biochemistry. She was then invited to research at Cambridge University. Here, she discovered that every cell of a plant tissue contained the enzyme cytochrome C while she earned her PhD. She chose to focus her thesis on foods most consumed by the underprivileged in India, like Neera, on whose nutritional value she did pioneering work.

4. Anna Mani

First woman to be appointed the Deputy Director-General of the Indian Meteorological Department.

The seventh of eight children, Anna grew up an avid reader who went on to make significant contributions to meteorological instrumentation, solar radiation, ozone and wind energy measurements. Academically more ambitious than most girls of her time, she initially dreamt of pursuing medicine.

In 1939, she began to work under C.V. Raman and though she authored five research papers, was not granted a PhD as she lacked a master’s degree. Finding her niche in meteorology, she went on to study at the Imperial College, London. She returned to be appointed as the Deputy Director General of the Indian Meteorological Department.

5. Indira Hinduja

First lady to deliver a test tube baby in India, paved the way for the first GIFT baby in the country!

A gynecologist and infertility specialist based in Mumbai, Dr. Indira Hinduja is a boon to Indian women who aspire to become mothers. She also did pioneering work in GIFT (Gamete intrafallopian transfer) technique that delivered India’s first GIFT baby in 1988. She also developed the oocyte donation technique, where one woman donates her eggs to enable another woman to conceive, allowing menopausal women and women suffering from premature ovarian failure to conceive for the first time in India.

She has won several awards for her contributions to science and medical care, including the Padma Shri in 2011.

6. Aditi Pant

First Indian woman to travel to Antarctica!

A book she happened upon while pursuing a BSc at the University of Pune called The Open Sea by Alister Hardy inspired Aditi to take up oceanography. Born in Nagpur, not much else is known about Aditi’s early life. In 1983, she and a fellow scientist became the first two Indian women to set foot on the icy terrains of Antarctica.

Prior to her voyage to Antarctica, Aditi received a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii and then pursued her PhD at Westfield College, London. She then began her career in research at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. She was part of the third and fifth Indian research expeditions to Antarctica.

7. Sunetra Gupta

Was awarded multiple international honours.

Sunetra is as remarkably artistic as she is invested in her scientific endeavour. A professor of in the department of zoology at the University of Oxford, she is also a novelist who writes in Bengali and English and translates the works of Rabindranath Tagore.

She earned her degrees from Princeton University and Imperial College, London and went on to sit on the European Advisory Board of Princeton University Press. A large part of her research focuses on infectious disease agents. She has also been awarded the Scientific Medal by the Zoological Society of London and the Rosalind Franklin Award.

8. Asima Chatterjee

With 40 years of research, she developed medicines for epilepsy and malaria.

Born into a middle class family in 1917, Bengal, Asima shared her father’s keen interest in science and went on to do a PhD in organic chemistry at University of Calcutta, making her the first Indian lady to earn a doctorate degree in a scientific discipline in India.

Her work was majorly focused on natural products chemistry and some of her 40 years of research helped develop an epilepsy drug and several anti-malarial drugs that went on to save the lives of countless patients. She also made numerous other findings in the field of organic chemistry.

9. Suman Sahai

Founder of Gene Campaign, an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture.

She is the founder of Gene Campaign, a non-profit organization that focuses on nutrition and livelihood security of adivasi and rural communities. Her work has provoked the government to address the problems of the agriculture industry in India. Gene Campaign promotes sustainable and climate-resilient farming methods and has positively impacted the lives of millions of farmers.

She received the Padma Shri award for her achievements in genetically modified crops and has worked at the University of Chicago, University of Alberta and the University of Heidelberg.

10. Rajeshwari Chatterjee

Authored more than 100 research papers and wrote 7 books.

After completing her bachelor and master degrees in mathematics from the Central College of Bangalore, she ranked first in Mysore University. She received a scholarship from the Government in 1946 to study abroad.

One month before India received independent, Rajeshwari travelled to the United States and received her Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan. After obtaining her PhD, she returned to India to join the faculty of IISc and set up a microwave research lab with her husband. She went on to mentor 20 PhD students and authored over a hundred research papers in microwave engineering.


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