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):

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.


Alex Engwete said...

“many of these women scientists[…] grew up not in the nation's big cities but in rural areas”

Years ago I read Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. At one point in the book, I think the author was rehearsing an anecdote about some other social scientists who found it odd that most of the first computer “geeks” from India came from one small corner of a rural area of an Indian state (I don’t recall which one though). Their claim was that these Indian computer “wizards” were probably “wired” that way from their childhood; because every morning women in those rural areas would draw intricate patterns with white powder on the thresholds of their houses to ward off evil spirits (by losing them in the intricacies of their designs).. And there are photos in the book of these patterns, which are as amazingly complex (or even more so) as Escher’s contraptions (for lack, on my part, of a good comparison)… The author didn’t put too much stock on those interpretations; his point being to come up with a “real” anthropological theory of art as agency in “primitive” societies…

Hari said...

Alex -- you certainly make very interesting connections.

My mother makes these patterns too. She does simple ones every morning, but on festive occasions she'll make very elaborate ones. It's a very common art form in India. I wish I had a picture to share.