One of the most talked about images from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was that of women scientists in ISRO celebrating the success of the mission. The image of sari-clad, flower-adorned, lady-next-door scientists gave most of us that immensely warm, fuzzy feeling. The most ironic thing – it was the very first time we were seeing a visual of women in science in India.
This shows that there is a gradual increase in the number of women who are taking science in India to an advanced level.
The good news is that there is an increasing number of women receiving an education in the sciences in India. Working in science has not been easy for women, with its long hours, societal biases, and the need to get married and have children in between. Let’s look at some of these women, often forgotten heroes, who have made great contributions to science and paved the way for others.
1. Anandi Gopal Joshi (1865–1887)This list has to start with a mention of Anandi Gopal Joshi, (she along with Kadambini Ganguly was one of the first Indian women doctors qualified to practice western medicine). Dr. Joshee’s short life was full of hardships; her family used to be rich landlords in Kalyan, Maharashtra , but they lost all their riches, and she was married at age 9 to a widower 20 years her senior. She gave birth at age 14 to a son who died shortly afterwards, and she herself suffered from poor health with an undiagnosed condition that often left her exhausted with shortness of breath and constant headaches. The death of her newborn son due to inadequate medical care is what inspired her to become a physician. She was also encouraged by her husband to study medicine abroad. Dr. Joshee, MD was in the class of 1886 at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (which was the first women’s medical program in the world). On her return to India, she was appointed as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital in the princely state of Kolhapur.
2. Janaki Ammal(1897-1984)At a time when women were regarded as ornaments of society and were confined to the four walls of their houses, Janaki Ammal certainly broke the stereotype when she pursued a career in scientific research. She was a botanist who studied cytogenetics and phytogeography. She lived in England for a few years, conducting chromosome studies on a wide range of garden plants, but soon returned to India and became the Director General of the Botanical Survey of India. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957.
3. Asima Chatterjee(1917-2006)Asima Chatterjee was a chemist who is greatly reputed for her contributions to organic chemistry and Phytomedicine. She is well known for her development of cancer medicine, anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She was the first woman to be named a Doctor of Science by an Indian university. She studied at the University of Calcutta and wrote several volumes of work on the medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent. She was nominated by the president of India as a member of the Rajya Sabha. She has inspired women to follow in her footsteps and pursue careers that are not normally expected of women.
4. Sunetra GuptaSunetra Gupta is a novelist and a professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. She studies infectious diseases, like the flu and malaria, using mathematical models. She received her undergraduate degree at the Princeton University and earned her doctorate from the University of London. She has been awarded the scientific medal by the zoological society of London and the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin award for her scientific research.
5. Dr. Indira HindujaDr. Indira Hinduja delivered India’s first test tube baby. She has pioneered the gamete intra-fallopian transfer leading to the birth of India’s first GIFT baby. She is a gynecologist, obstetrician and infertility specialist based in Mumbai. Dr. Hinduja’s research has resulted in several papers published in national and international medical journals.
6. Dr. Aditi PantDr. Aditi Pant is a well known oceanographer who was the first Indian woman to have visited the icy terrain of Antarctica in 1983. She was a part of the third Indian expenditure to Antarctica and received the Antarctica award along with three of her colleagues for their contributions to the project. She worked in the National Institute of Oceanography and the National Chemical Laboratory.
7. Dr. Suman SahaiDr. Suman Sahai was the founder of the Gene Campaign in India, an organization working on food, nutrition and livelihoods. She is a recipient of the Padma Shri, the Borlaug and the outstanding woman achiever awards. Her name appears in the list of successful women scientists of India because of her single-minded determination to achieve her goals, which forced the Government to finally take notice of the effects of genetically-modified crops and address the problems faced by the farmers of India.