International Women's Day: India's unsung women scientists and researchers who made pioneering contributions to the nation

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After constituting ten UGC chairs, the Union Govt's announcement of eleven chairs in the name of pioneering women scientists is a paradigm shift in recognising the feminine genius that inspires the New Bharat
In a unique initiative, on the occasion of this year’s National Science Day, the Union Government announced 11 chairs in the name of eminent Indian women scientists in various fields. The decision was aimed at inspiring and empowering women in the domain of scientific research and giving due recognition to young women researchers excelling in various fields.
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi announced several schemes for Women’s Empowerment and the proposal is in line with the theme for this year’s National Science Day - ‘Women in Science’. The 11 Chairs have been instituted in various areas of research including Agriculture, Biotechnology, Immunology, Phytomedicine, Biochemistry, Medicine, Social Sciences, Earth Science & Meteorology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics & Fundamental Research. Here you read in detail about the hitherto unsung women scientists and researchers who made pioneering contributions to the nation.
1. Botanist Janaki Ammal (1897-1984)
Kerala-born Janaki Ammal was arguably the first woman to obtain a PhD in Botany in the U.S. (1931), and remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred a DSc (honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan. During her time at Ann Arbor she lived in the Martha Cook Building, an all-female residence hall and worked with Harley Harris Bartlett, Professor at the Department of Botany. She lived and worked in the Centre's Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras until her demise in February 1984. Her obituary states "She was devoted to her studies and research until the end of her life." Aptly chosen lines from the Rig Veda that highlight her fondness for plants mark her obituary, "The sun receive thine eye, the wind thy spirit; go as thy merit is, to earth or heaven. Go, if it be thy lot, unto water; go make thine house in plants with all thy members."
Contributions & Recognitions
As a geneticist, Ammal made several intergeneric hybrids: Saccharum x Zea, Saccharum x Erianthus, Saccharum x Imperata and Saccharum x Sorghum. From then onwards, Ammal was in the service of the government of India in various capacities including heading the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad, and was officer on special duty at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu. She worked for a brief period at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay before settling down in Madras in November 1970 as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras.
During the years (1939–1950) she spent in England, she did chromosome studies of a wide range of garden plants. Her studies on chromosome number and ploidy in many cases threw light on the evolution of species and varieties. The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants which she wrote jointly with C. D. Darlington in 1945 was a compilation that incorporated much of her own work on many species. Ammal also worked on the genera Solanum, Datura, Mentha, Cymbopogon and Dioscorea besides medicinal and other plants. In the Centre of Advanced Study Field Laboratory where she lived and worked she developed a garden of medicinal plants. She also worked on cytology.
Ammal was elected Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935, and of the Indian National Science Academy in 1957. The University of Michigan conferred an honorary LL.D. on her in 1956. The Government of India conferred the Padma Shri on her in 1977. In 2000, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India instituted the National Award of Taxonomy in her name.
2. Cytogeneticist Archana Sharma (1932-2008)
Archana Sharma was a botanist specialised in plant genetics. She did pioneering work in speciation in asexual plants, or understanding how these plants evolved to become distinct species. She was also specialised in studying cells, their biology, toxicology, and genetics. Some of her other biggest contributions include research into the underlying mechanism behind the induction of cell division in an adult nucleus, genetic polymorphism in human population, and effect of arsenic in water. She was, perhaps, most known for her work in chromosomes and chromosome-related classification of flowering plant. Sharma's research led to major breakthroughs in botanical science.
Contributions & Recognitions
In 1967, Sharma joined the University of Calcutta as faculty, later becoming a Professor of Genetics in 1972 in the Centre of Advanced Studies in Cell and Chromosome Research at University of Calcutta. In 1981, she was promoted to Head of the Department of Botany, succeeding Prof. A.K. Sharma until 1983.
During her academic career, she supervised over 70 Ph.D. students in the areas of cytogenetics, human genetics, and environmental mutagenesis. Among her notable findings are topics related to speciation in vegetatively reproducing plants, induction of cell division in adult nuclei, the cause of polyteny in differentiated tissues in plants, cytotaxonomy of flowering plants, and the effect of arsenic in water.
Sharma was member of several organisations such as the University Grants Commission, National Commission for Women, Science and Engineering Research Council, Department of Environment, Overseas Scientific Advisory Committee, among various others. Sharma also served as Chairperson on the Task Force on Integrated Manpower Development of the Department of Biotechnology. Archana Sharma published 10 books and between 300 and 400 research papers. Archana Sharma also edited multiple scientific volumes for publishers such as CRC Press, Oxford, IBH, Kluwer Academic (Netherlands), and Gordon and Beach UK.
Archana Sharma won several awards and recognitions such as G.P. Chatterjee Award, 1995, S.G. Sinha Award, 1995, Padma Bhushan (third-highest civilian award by the President of the India), 1984, Birbal Sahni Medal, 1984, FICCI Award, 1983, Fellowship at Indian Academy of Sciences, 1977, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, 1975 and J.C. Bose Award, 1972.
3. Biochemist Darshan Ranganathan (1941-2001)
Darshan Ranganathan is particularly known for her work in protein folding and her research in bio-organic chemistry. She also specialised in recreating naturally-occurring biological reactions in a laboratory setting. Darshan Ranganathan was an expert in designing proteins and other nano structures of structural importance in chemistry.
Contributions & Recognitions
Darshan Ranganathan received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Delhi University in 1967. She became head of the Chemistry Department at Miranda College, Delhi, and went on to receive an 1851 Research Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, to enable her to conduct post doctoral work at Imperial College, London with Professor D.H.R. Barton.
In 1970, she began research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IIT Kanpur). In that year, she married Subramania Ranganathan, with whom she would go on to author Challenging Problems in Organic Reaction Mechanisms (1972), Art in biosynthesis: The Synthetic Chemist's Challenge (1976), and Further Challenging Problems in Organic Reaction Mechanisms (1980)—as well as editing an ongoing series titled "Current Organic Chemistry Highlights".
Darshan Ranganathan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and died on her 60th birthday, in 2001. At the time of her passing away, she was the most prolific organic chemist in India, having, in the last five years, a dozen publications in The Journal of the American Chemical Society, six in the Journal of Organic Chemistry and dozens in others. Her monumental contribution to the Accounts of Chemical Research was published, as well as many other papers, posthumously. She was elected Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Indian National Science Academy and the recipient of many honours the last of which was The Third World Academy of Sciences Award in chemistry for her outstanding contributions to Bio-Organic Chemistry, particularly supramolecular assemblies, molecular design, chemical simulation of key biological processes, synthesis of functional hybrid peptides and synthesis of nanotubes, in 1999.
She was a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. She also won the A.V. Rama Rao Foundation Award, the Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Visiting Fellowship, Third World Academy of Sciences Award in Chemistry in 1999 for her work in bio-organic chemistry, and the Sukh Dev Endowment Lectureship. The biennial "Professor Darshan Ranganathan Memorial Lecture", which is to be "delivered by a woman scientist who has made outstanding contributions in any field of Science and Technology" was established in her memory by her husband, in 2001.
4. Chemist Asima Chatterjee (1917-2006)
Asima Chatterjee was an organic chemist whose biggest claim to fame is her development of anti-malaria, chemotherapy, and anti-epilepsy drugs. She performed extensive research on medicinal plants found on the Indian subcontinent. The aforementioned drug discoveries were a part of her work on the chemistry of concentrated natural products. She worked for nearly half-a-century on alkaloids, which are used in chemotherapy to prevent cells from multiplying.
Contributions & Recognitions
She was the first Indian woman to earn a doctorate in science. Her doctoral research focused on the chemistry of plant products and synthetic organic chemistry. Among her notable instructors at the time were Prafulla Chandra Roy and Satyendra Nath Bose. Additionally, she had research experience from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Caltech with László Zechmeister.
Chatterjee's research focused on natural products chemistry and resulted in anti-convulsive, anti-malarial, and chemotherapy drugs. She spent around forty years researching various alkaloid compounds. She also discovered anti-epileptic activity in Marsilea minuta and anti-malarial activity in the plants Alstonia scholaris, Swertia chirata, Picrorhiza kurroa and Caesalpinia crista. These agents, however, have not been shown to be clinically competitive with the medications currently used for these conditions. Her work led to the development of an epilepsy drug called Ayush-56 and several anti-malarial drugs.
In 1961, she received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science, becoming the first female recipient of this award. In 1975, she was conferred the prestigious Padma Bhushan and became the first female scientist to be elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association. She was conferred the D. Sc. (honoris causa) degree by several universities. She was also nominated by the President of India as a Member of the Rajya Sabha from February 1982 to May 1990. In a rare honour, on 23 September 2017, the search engine Google deployed a 24-hour Google Doodle in honour of the 100th anniversary of Chatterjee's birth.
5. Physician Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923)
Kadambini Ganguly was among India’s first two female physicians — as well as South Asia’s and the British Empire’s — to have been trained in modern medicine. As the first woman in most places she stepped into, Ganguly fought off many prejudices and much discrimination. Apart from practicing independent medicine, she was also politically very active. She aided in the freedom struggle against the British Raj, organised Satyagraha meetings in 1906 after the partition of Bengal, and worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of female coal workers in eastern India.
Contributions & Recognitions
Kadambini Ganguly overcame some opposition from the teaching staff, and orthodox sections of society. She went to the United Kingdom in 1892 and returned to India after qualifying as LRCP (Edinburgh), LRCS (Glasgow), and GFPS (Dublin). After working for a short period in Lady Dufferin Hospital, she started her own private practice.
She was actively involved in female emancipation and social movements to improve work conditions of female coal miners in eastern India. She was one of the six female delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress in 1889, and even organised the Women's Conference in Calcutta in 1906 in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal. In 1908, she had also organised and presided over a Calcutta meeting for expressing sympathy with Satyagraha – inspired Indian labourers in Transvaal, South Africa. She formed an association to collect money with the help of fundraisers to assist the workers.
6. Anthropologist Iravati Karve (1905-1970)
Iravati Karve was India’s first female anthropologist at a time when the field went hand-in-hand with sociology. Her fields of expertise encompassed Indology (the study of Indian history and culture as a subset of Asian culture), palaeontology, anthropometry (physiological dimensions of human bodies across cultures), and serology (the study of bodily fluids). She was a pioneer in women’s education.
Contributions & Recognitions
Karve worked as an administrator at SNDT Women's University in Bombay from 1931 to 1936 and did some postgraduate teaching in the city. She moved to Pune's Deccan College as a Reader in sociology in 1939 and remained there for the rest of her career.
She founded the Department of Anthropology at what was then Poona University (now the University of Pune). Karve served for many years as the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Deccan College, Pune. She presided over the Anthropology Division of the National Science Congress held in New Delhi in 1947. She wrote in both Marathi and English.
Although Karve's work on kinship was based on anthropometric and linguistic surveys that are now considered unacceptable, there has been a revival of academic interest in that and some other aspects of her work, such as ecology and Maharashtrian culture.­­
7. Meteorologist Anna Mani (1918-2001)
Anna Mani performed research at the Indian Meteorological Department in Pune and authored numerous research papers on meteorological instrumentation. ­­­­­
Contributions & Recognitions
After graduating from the Pachai college, she worked under Prof. Solomon Pappaiah, researching the optical properties of ruby and diamond. She authored five research papers and submitted her PhD dissertation, but she was not granted a PhD degree because she did not have a Master's degree in Physics. After returning to India in 1948, she joined the Meteorological department in Pune. She published numerous research papers on ­­­meteorological instrumentation. She was mostly responsible for arranging for meteorological instruments, imported from Britain. By 1953, she had become the head of the division with a 121 men working for her.
She standardised the drawings of close to 100 different weather instruments. From 1957-58, she set up a network of stations to measure solar radiation. In Bangalore, she set up a small workshop that manufactured instruments for the purpose of measuring wind speed and solar energy. She worked on the development of an apparatus to measure the ozone. She was made a member of the International Ozone Association. She set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.
She was associated with many scientific organizations such as the Indian National Science Academy, American Meteorological Society, International Solar Energy Society, World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the International Association for Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics, etc. In 1987, she was a recipient of the INSA K. R. Ramanathan Medal. In 1975, she served as a WMO consultant in Egypt. She retired as the deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological department in 1976.
In 1994 she suffered from a stroke, and died on 16 August 2001 in Thiruvananthapuram. The World Meteorological Organization remembered her on 100 birth anniversary and published her life profile along with Anna interview.
8.Engineer Rajeshwari Chatterjee (1922-2010)
Rajeshwari Chatterjee was a Mathematician and an Electrical Engineer, specialising in electromagnetic theory, microwave technology, and radio engineering. She was the first woman Engineer from the state of Karnataka and pursued her PhD in the US just after World War II. She has contributed immensely to the field of antennae for special purposes used in aircraft and spacecraft. After her return to India, she served as faculty in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. She then worked with Indian Association for Women’s Studies.
Contributions & Recognitions
After finishing her schooling she got admitted into Central College of Bangalore where she earned B.Sc (Hons) and M.Sc degrees in Mathematics. In 1946, she was selected as a "bright student" by the Government of Delhi and was given a scholarship to go abroad to pursue higher studies and she decided to the United States. In the US, she was admitted to the University of Michigan and obtained her Master's degree from the Department of Electrical Engineering. In early 1953 she obtained her PhD degree under the guidance of Professor William Gould Dow.
In 1953, after obtaining her PhD degree, she returned to India and became a faculty member at the IISc Department of Electrical Communication Engineering. That same year, she married Sisir Kumar Chatterjee, who was a faculty member of the same college. After their marriage, she and her husband built a microwave research laboratory and began research in the field of Microwave Engineering, the first such research in India.
In the same period, Chatterjee was selected for the position of Chairman in the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering. Over her lifetime, she mentored 20 PhD students, wrote over 100 research papers, and authored seven books.
Following her retirement from the IISc in 1982, she worked on social programs, including the Indian Association for Women's Studies.
9. Mathematician Raman Parimala (1948)
Raman Parimala, the only living person on the list, is a mathematician well-known for her contributions to algebra. She demonstrated the first example of a ‘non trivial quadratic space over an affine plane’, in a move that surprised experts in the field. She specialises in using number theory, algebraic geometry, and topology. She is also well-recognised for her solution to the Second Serre Conjecture.
Contributions & Recognitions
An Indian Mathematician known for her contributions to Algebra, Parimala is the Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Emory University. For many years, she was a professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai.
Among her selected works are Failure of a Quadratic Analogue of Serre's Conjecture (Bulletin of the AMS, vol. 82, 1976, pp. 962–964 MR0419427), Quadratic spaces over polynomial extensions of regular rings of dimension 2, (Mathematische Annalen, vol. 261, 1982, pp. 287–292 doi:10.1007/BF01455449), Galois cohomology of the Classical groups over fields of cohomological dimension etc.
On National Science Day in 2020, Smriti Irani, Minister, Women and Child Development, Government of India announced establishment of chair in name of Raman Parimala. Parimala was an invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zurich in 1994 and gave a talk Study of quadratic forms — some connections with geometry. She gave a plenary address Arithmetic of linear algebraic groups over two dimensional fields at the Congress in Hyderabad in 2010.
She was fellow of prestigious institutions like the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, American Mathematical Society etc. She also won Bhatnagar Award in 1987, Honorary doctorate from the University of Lausanne in 1999, Srinivasa Ramanujan Birth Centenary Award in 2003, and TWAS Prize for Mathematics (2005).
10. Physicist Bibha Chowdhuri (1913-1991)
Bibha Chowdhuri is well known for her work in Particle Physics and cosmic rays, and discovery of a new subatomic particle, the pi-meson, from experiments in Darjeeling. She worked under physicist Debendra Mohan Bose, who was often credited for her work. She later also worked with Nobel winner Patrick Blackett on cosmic rays. Upon moving to India, she worked in the field of nuclear physics. She was involved in the Kolar Gold Field experiments to detect neutrinos.
Contributions & Recognitions
Chowdhuri joined the laboratory of Patrick Blackett for her doctoral studies, working on cosmic rays at the University of Manchester. Her PhD thesis investigated extensive air showers. Her examiner was Lajos Jánossy. It is unclear how much her work contributed to Blackett's Nobel Prize.
Chowdhuri demonstrated that the density of penetrating events is proportional to the total particle density of an extensive air shower. She was interviewed by the Manchester Evening News, saying that "it is a tragedy that we have so few women physicists today". The article was titled Meet India’s New Woman Scientist – She has an eye for cosmic rays.
Chowdhuri returned to India after her PhD, working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research for 8 years. In 1954 she was a visiting researcher at the University of Michigan. She was appointed because Homi Bhabha was still establishing the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and contacted her thesis examiners for advice on outstanding graduate students. She joined the Physical Research Laboratory and became involved with the Kolar Gold Fields experiments. She moved to Kolkata to work at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. She taught physics in French.
Recently, through a public competition by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which names planetary bodies, the yellow-white dwarf star HD 86081 was renamed Bibha in her honour. Her life was described in the book, A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhuri. She was described by The Statesman as a forgotten legend. She continued to publish until she passed away in 1991.
11. Pathologist Kamal Ranadive (1917-2001)
Kamal Ranadive was a biomedical researcher known for her research in the link between cancers and viruses. She worked on the development of tissue culture techniques at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She returned to India to set up the Experimental Biology Laboratory and Tissue Culture Laboratory in Mumbai, and became the director of the Indian Cancer Research Centre. She also conducted research into the links between cancer and genetics, as well as cancer in infants. Her work led to developments in the causes of diseases like leukaemia, breast cancer, and oesophageal cancer.
Contributions & Recognitions
She worked at the Tata Memorial Hospital. Her husband, Ranadive, was a great help in her postgraduate studies in Cytology; this subject had been chosen by her father. Here, she also worked for her doctoral degree (Doctor of Philosophy) at the Bombay University. After she got her Ph.D., from the University of Bombay in 1949, she was encouraged by Khanolkar to seek fellowship in any American University. She got a postdoctoral research fellowship to work on tissue culture techniques and work with George Gay (famous for his innovation laborator HeLa cell line) in his laboratory at John's Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Kamal Ranadive, on her return to India, rejoined ICRC and started her professional career as a Senior Research Officer. She was instrumental in establishing Experimental Biology Laboratory and Tissue Culture Laboratory in Bombay. From 1966 to 1970 she had assumed the mantle of the Director of the Indian Cancer Research Centre in an acting capacity. Her career achievements include research on the pathophysiology of cancer through the medium of animals which led to a further appreciation of causes of diseases such as leukaemia, breast cancer and Esophageal cancer. Another notable achievement was in establishing a link to the susceptibility of cancer and hormones and tumour virus relationship. She was a great inspiration to Indian women scientists to work on cancer research.
A significant study that Kamal and her team of the Satya Niketan (a voluntary organisation) of Ahmednagar undertook in 1989 was the collection of data related to the nutritional condition of tribal children in the Akola taluk of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Kamal also provided advice to women in the rural villages near Rajpur and Ahmednagar on health and medical care through government-sponsored projects under the aegis of the Indian Women Association.