Professor Kamla Sohoni (NC 1937)
Who was Professor Kamla Sohoni?
Kamala Sohoni (1912–1998) was an Indian biochemist. She was the first Indian woman to get PhD in science.1911–1998 (Bhagwat)
At the time of Kamala Bhagwat’s birth in India in 1911, the literacy rate among Indian women was less than 1%, as they were denied education and any role outside the home. Fortunately for her (and the world), her family treated girls and boys equally and encouraged her intellectual interests. Kamala was inspired by her father and uncle’s chemistry background throughout her life and was determined to follow in their footsteps. She became the first Indian woman to earn a PhD and the first woman to head a major scientific institution in India.
When Kamala arrived at Newnham as a research student in 1937, she was already a pioneer in her country and a veteran of the fight to allow women to undertake scientific research. After topping his class at Bombay University, he applied in 1933 for postgraduate studies at his father’s alma mater, the prestigious Institute of Science, Bangalore. She was immediately turned down because she was a woman. Kamla did not approve of this. She arrived at the office of the director, Sir C.V. Raman, a physicist who was the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Science.
Practicing Satyagraha, non-violent protest inspired by Gandhi, he staged a sit-in at his office until he relented and admitted him for a year’s probation. Despite conditions that were designed to make him a failure—excessive hours, substandard conditions in the lab, and prohibitions on ‘distracting’ the ‘real’ scientists—he impressed his colleagues so much with his hard work and talent That first year after passing out, the institute started admitting women.
Her early work on the proteins in pulses and milk had important implications for nutrition in India and throughout her research career she was passionately involved in improving nutrition among India’s poor citizens. At Cambridge he worked on plant tissue, and discovered cytochrome c, a protein which proved that biological oxidation-reduction processes are the same in plants and animals.
Gender bias is common around the world, especially in science. But the situation in India was probably worst when modern science education started in India under the British rule. There were some social reformers who advocated western science based education for women, but most of the political leaders of the time were against it. Even Mahatma Gandhi was against educating women. He said, “Man and woman are of equal rank but they are not equal. They are a unique pair because they complement each other; each helps the other, so that the existence of one without the other cannot be imagined.” and therefore from these facts it follows as a necessary corollary that whatever would worsen the condition of either would involve the destruction of both of them alike. The fundamental truth must always be kept in mind.” “The introduction of English education in schools meant for women may add to our helplessness,” he added. Despite such adverse conditions, there were some Indian women who had the courage to join the field of science and established themselves. Most of them came from educated and established society, yet they had to face many difficulties because they were women. Kamala Sohoni was one of them and the first Indian woman to receive a PhD from the University of Cambridge in Biochemistry. Kamala was born in a well-educated family in Bombay (now Mumbai). Both his father Narayan Bhagwat and his uncle had completed their graduation with chemistry honors from Bombay Presidency College. His family members wanted him to become a scientist. Naturally, Kamala was inspired to take up science as her future carrier and was seriously guided from her childhood. , As a result he completed BSc with Chemistry from Bombay Presidency College with highest score. At that time the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore was a famous scientific institute, headed by Prof. C.V. Raman who was the first Asian Nobel laureate in Physics. Most of the scientists and researchers wanted to join IISc, as it had a well-equipped laboratory. Naturally, Kamala wanted to join the institute as her dream was to become a successful scientist. Kamala’s real struggle in Raman’s laboratory began when Raman refused her admission to IISc, although her graduate had high marks, Kamala Sohoni.
Vol. 81, Nos. 5–6 129 Simply because she was a girl. Raman refuses to accept her, despite her father’s requests. But Kamala was made of a different material. She directly asked Raman why girl candidates would not be allowed in his institution and challenged her to complete the course with distinction. Raman saw her on the first day.
Rejected but after much hesitation he was admitted with certain conditions. The conditions were: i) He would not be allowed as a regular candidate. ii) He will have to work till late night as per the instruction of his guide. iii) It shall not disturb the atmosphere of the laboratory. During a felicitation ceremony at BARC organized by the Indian Women Scientists Association (IWSA) in 1997, she publicly said, “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me because I was a woman. This was a great insult to me. At that time the prejudice against women was very bad. What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves like this? However, at IISc, he worked very hard under his teacher Sri Srinivasayya. He was very strict, demanding as well as eager to impart knowledge to deserving students. Here he worked on proteins in milk, pulses and legumes, which had important implications for nutritional practices in India. In 1936, Kamala was perhaps the only graduate student in the world to work on pulse proteins. He presented his thesis at Bombay University and obtained the degree of MSc. Kamala had successfully overcome her first battle. He got a scholarship to do research at Cambridge University, UK. He Sir C.V. Raman with her devotion and hard work that a woman is also capable of research work. The next year, Raman’s doors opened to girl candidates as well. At Cambridge University, Kamala first worked in the laboratory of Dr. Derrick Richter, who offered her a spare table to work on during the day. When Dr. Richter left to work elsewhere, Kamala continued her work under Dr. Robin Hill, who was doing similar work, but on plant tissue. Working on potatoes, he discovered that every cell of plant tissue also contained the enzyme “cytochrome c” and that cytochrome c was involved in the oxidation of all plant cells. It was an original discovery that covered the entire plant kingdom. As Hopkins suggested, Kamala sent a brief thesis describing the discovery of cytochrome c in plant tissue respiration to Cambridge University for her PhD degree. His PhD degree was remarkable in several ways. Her research and thesis were done in less than 16 months
C.E. arrived in Cambridge. It consisted of only 40 typed pages. The books of others sometimes contained more than a thousand pages. She was the first Indian woman “to be awarded the degree of PhD in Science.” Kamala thus had happy days at Cambridge, where all teachers and friends were extremely cooperative and there was a good atmosphere for doing research. With her PhD degree she got the prestige she truly deserved. Perhaps her Cambridge life was the golden period of Kamala’s academic career. He got two scholarships. The first was for research work with Nobel Prize winning prof. Frederick Hopkins at the Sir William Dwan Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. Here he worked in the areas of organic oxidation and reduction. The second scholarship was a traveling fellowship from the American Federation of University Women, when Kamalaka came in close contact with eminent scientists in Europe. After Kamala returned to India in 1939 during her professional career, she joined Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi as professor and became the head. Newly opened Department of Biochemistry. But most of the employees in the department were men. So he did not get a good working environment there. Later she joined as Assistant Director of Nutrition Research Lab, Coonoor. There he did important research on the effects of vitamins. He published some scientific papers in several journals. However, due to the lack of a clear path for career advancement, he began to consider resigning. Around this time, she received a marriage proposal from MV Sohoni, a scribe by profession. She accepted the offer and moved to Mumbai in 1947. Government of Maharashtra invited applications for the post of Professor of Biochemistry in the newly opened Department of Biochemistry at the (Royal) Institute of Science, Bombay. Kamala applied and got selected. During his tenure at the Institute of Science, he worked with his students on the nutritional aspects of neera (also known as sweet toddy or palm nectar), pulse and legume proteins as well as paddy (paddy) flour. All the subjects of his research were highly relevant to the Indian social needs.