Eighty years ago, Indian women broke into science by refusing to take no for an answer

History in the making.
History in the making.
Image: Pp391/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
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In the early 1930s, when Kamala Bhagvat, a graduate from Bombay University, sought admission to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore (now Bengaluru), its then director, Nobel laureate CV Raman, turned her down.

She was, after all, a woman.

Despite being around for over 20 years, IISc had only ever admitted two female students till that point.

However, Bhagvat wasn’t one to stick to norms. With her family’s help, she eventually persuaded Raman into admitting her in 1933. Raman, though, maintained his bias throughout her time there.

“Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded,” she reportedly said at an event organised by the Indian Women Scientists’ Association many years later. “The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a manner?”

Nevertheless, Bhagvat studied biochemistry for three years at IISc and then went to Cambridge, going on to become one of the first Indian women to get a doctorate.

Her story comes from Connect, a website run by the Archives and Publications Cell (APC) of IISc, which is highlighting the experiences of some of the historic institution’s earliest female students. These students were pioneers at a time when science, and IISc itself, really weren’t open to Indian women.

Storming a bastion

In 1911, when IISc was established, there were no female students at all. It would be nine years before a lone “Miss MM Mehta” was enrolled, followed by a “Miss RK Christie” in 1922, according to Connect.

But the 1930s and 1940s marked a slight improvement, prompting the construction of women’s accommodation and toilets on campus.

One such student who joined the institution around 1940 was Violet D’Souza, now 101 years old and living with her daughter and son-in-law in New Delhi. Born on Jan. 21, 1917, to a Goan family living in Agra and later in Jhansi, D’Souza attended a girl’s school that didn’t teach science at all.

Her first brush with physics, chemistry, and biology came at Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow. She eventually got a master’s degree in chemistry from Lucknow University, she told Connect.

Since her family had moved to Bangalore by then, one of her professors suggested applying to the IISc which she’d never heard of till then. Yet, D’Souza got into its department of chemistry, thought she later decided to study fermentation technology instead. As she recalled in an interview with Collect, IISc had students from across India at that time and by the time she joined, men and women were able to mix relatively freely. They formed music clubs, played bridge, and even went on picnics to the scenic Nandi Hills near Bangalore.

“At that time, there were people like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai visiting the institute. It was an exciting place because eminent scientists would visit and give talks…The freedom movement was in full swing, and students were keen on freedom from British rule,” D’ouza told Connect.

After living with her parents for a while, she eventually moved into IISc’s women’s hostel where one of her fellow residents was Rajeswari Chatterjee, later Karnataka’s first female engineer and also IISc’s first Indian female faculty member.

Students outside the first women’s hostel, c. 1945. (L-R) Rajeswari Chatterjee, Roshan Irani, M Premabai, Miriam George, and Violet D’Souza (later Violet Bajaj).
Students outside the first women’s hostel, c. 1945. (L-R) Rajeswari Chatterjee, Roshan Irani, M Premabai, Miriam George, and Violet D’Souza (later Violet Bajaj).
Image: APC, IISc

Chatterjee joined the department of electrical technology in July 1944. She took courses on electrical communication engineering, vacuum tubes, electro-acoustics, and online communication, and eventually got a scholarship of Rs60 per month to cover her hostel expenses.

After the end of the Second World War, she became one of the handful of female students to get the Indian government’s scholarship to study abroad. She then moved to the US and got a master’s degree and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Yet, almost a decade after Chatterjee’s entry into IISc, the proportion of female students there had hardly changed. In 1953, she returned to her alma mater as a lecturer in electromagnetic theory, teaching a class of 19 men and just one woman.

Around this time, Bajaj also joined the biochemicals unit of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research where she worked until retirement in the 1970s.

Many of her other female friends from IISc embarked on careers in teaching and research, notably Anna Mani, who would become one of India’s greatest scientists and a pioneering meteorologist who retired in 1976 as deputy director general of India Meteorological Department.

In the 1960s, a new generation of women entered IISc.

This included Chanchal Uberoi who was accepted as a PhD student in the department of applied mathematics after what was, as she recalled, a grueling three-hour-long interview. She would go on to teach at the institution and, eventually in 1999, become its very first female dean. But through the 1960s and 1970s, the number of women hardly rose to about 20, while male students numbered 1,000.

Good times, bad times

Many of IISc’s earliest female students have mostly good memories of their time there, working late on pioneering research and bonding over hostel meals with other students.

They did face some sexism, though: DK Padma, who worked in the department of inorganic and physical chemistry from 1967 to 1994, recalled how the head of the department told her she would only be admitted if she promised not to have a child during the tenure of her course. And Revathi Narayan, a student between 1974 and 1979, was reportedly asked by a member of the department of biochemistry if she planned to leave the course halfway to start a family.

To this day, science in India remains dominated by men. More and more women may be studying scientific subjects, but in a conservative country that prioritises marriage and motherhood, just 14% of working science researchers are women. Beyond science, too, career-oriented Indian women continue to face discrimination, with potential employers routinely viewing them as likely to be weighed down by family responsibilities, if not simply incapable of doing work the way men can.

As Violet D’Souza, now Violet Bajaj, puts it: “They think women are not capable enough to take responsibility. There’s a blatant prejudice against women.”

Feature image by Pp391 on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.