A collection of 98 short biographies, the book stems from a project initiated by the Women in Science panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, to provide young girls with inspiring role models (see http://www.ias.ac.in/womeninscience). The diverse personal stories span many disciplines and regions of India — and are inspiring.
The earliest chronological entry is for Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to go abroad and study to become a doctor. From 1883 to 1886 she attended the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia and was awarded an MD degree for her thesis Obstetrics Among Aryan Hindoos. Unfortunately, she contracted tuberculosis and had to return to India. She received no treatment: Western doctors refused to treat a brown woman and Indian doctors would not help her because she had broken societal rules. Joshi died in 1887 at 22 years of age.
Many of those highlighted were the first to break into male-dominated professions: Asima Chatterjee was the first Indian woman to be awarded a DSc; E. K. Janaki Ammal was elected a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences the year it was founded; Kamala Sohonie was the first female director of the Institute of Science, Mumbai; and Bimla Buti is a former director of plasma physics at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.
It is interesting that many of these women scientists came from ordinary middle-class families. Most grew up not in the nation's big cities but in rural areas, where getting an education in any discipline, let alone in science, is difficult. In rural Punjab, mathematician R. J. Hans-Gill had to pretend to be a boy and wear a turban to attend school — a secret that was kept between her family and the headmaster. Biologist Chitra Mandal was accompanied to school in rural Bengal by her grandmother because the teacher would not let the four-year-old in without someone to look after her.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
The women scientists of India
Asha Gopinathan reviews Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India in Nature (subscription may be required):