Three women scientists & the evolution of ‘Indian’ science

Nationalism in science no longer means what it did for the pioneering women of Indian science: E. K. Janaki Ammal, Kamala Bhagvat, and R. Rajalakshmi.
By | Published on Oct 7, 2021

Gaumutra cures COVID-19.
Gaumutra is an effective ‘sanitiser’.

In the past five years, such falsehoods have elevated gaumutra (cow urine) to national importance and garnered government investment. Members of both parliament and state legislative assemblies have issued public statements proclaiming that gaumutra cures cancer. With even high court judges calling for the cow to replace the tiger as the national animal, the declaration of cow urine as India’s national drink is a daunting possibility.

There has even been a government call for research proposals on “the uniqueness of indigenous cows and the curative properties of cow urine, dung, and milk, including potential cancer treatments.” Enraged by this, five hundred scientists wrote a letter to the Modi government in 2020 asking for withdrawal of this call, to no avail. Unfortunately, several scientists are now having to include cow urine in their research proposals, as they believe this will raise their chances of government funding that is hard to come by. According to Arnab Bhattacharya from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), many of these papers are actually about nanoparticles. 

This is the Indianisation of pseudo-science a nationalism rooted in divisive faith-based politics that has come to the forefront in India, across sectors. However, this is not how it has always been. In the 1900s, pioneering scientists (often women) worked towards a different kind of Indianisation of science, one that was in service of the people of India. 

Before gaumatra, it was neera. 

Kamala Bhagvat’s Student Roll Card from Newnham College, Cambridge shows her having been resident at Cambridge 1938-39 and being awarded her PhD in 1939

Studying the properties of neera (nectar from toddy palm trees) was one of the defining projects of Kamala Bhagvat’s scientific career. Kamala Bhagvat (later Kamala Sohonie), one of India’s earliest women PhDs, called neera India’s national drink in the mid-20th century. She met Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India in the 1950s, and took up the study of neera at his suggestion. This work would later win her a President’s Award. She found that neera contained sizeable amounts of vitamins B and C, as well as iron in stable forms. With her efforts, it became an economical and easily producible supplement to the Indian diet. To this day, pre-fermented neera is distributed by multiple state governments.

“Palm jaggery (obtained by concentrating palm juice with a small amount of superphosphate in an evaporating pan at 120°C) was found to retain most of the nutrients of neera, and feeding trials with neera and palm jaggery gave encouraging results indicating that they could be used as cheap supplements to the poor Indian diet.”

Kamala Sohonie, “Opportunities for Women Scientists in India,” in Women Scientists: The Road to Liberation, ed. Derek Richter (London: MacMillan, 1982), p. 21.

Kamala is one of three women scientists from the 20th century whose stories this article uses to illustrate how ‘Indianisation’ of science has historically contributed to nation-building. 

The other two pioneering scientists being considered here are E. K. Janaki Ammal and R. Rajalakshmi, all of whom completed doctoral degrees in the sciences abroad and returned to India at different points of the nation-building movement from 1931 to 1958. They each dedicated significant portions of their lives to making their Western education accessible and applicable to the context of the subcontinent.

To reach where she did in her career, Kamala overcame many obstacles; including having to stage a protest at IISc Bangalore in 1933, against the policy of celebrated physicist and then Director of IISc, C. V. Raman, which forbade women from working in his labs. Following her protest, Raman relented by allowing Kamala to work in the lab in the evenings after the male researchers had left so that she wouldn’t be a ‘distraction’ or ‘disturbance’ to them. After Kamala worked in his lab for a year, Raman allowed her to do regular research and then began admitting women scientists to the institute.

She later said, “though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn’t admit me as a regular student… What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a way?” 

Kamala Bhagvat working with Hermann Lehmann in a photograph from the archives of the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, 1938-39

The scientific independence, personal courage, and strong civic sense of these women scientists stands in contrast to the increasingly prevalent narratives we see of public figures and bodies today co-opting the language of science to rationalise and further unscientific, nationalist agendas. As the pandemic has raged over the last year and a half, we have witnessed a perverse distortion of scientific temper in state and state-endorsed communication. 

Earlier this year, this reached a stage where Ramdev, the founder of Patanjali, launched a “scientific research paper” on the ayurvedic product Coronil, which he called the “first evidence-based medicine for Covid-19.” Despite the Health Ministry having barred Patanjali from advertising Coronil as a “cure”, India’s Health and Science Minister was one of two Union Ministers gracing the launch of this “research paper”. State governments have also been distributing Coronil as part of their COVID-19 relief kits. This manipulation of public sentiment was so troubling that the Indian Medical Association issued a statement condemning this event, calling it a “blatant lie” deceiving the people of India.

More recently, on September 1 this year, Justice Shekhar Kumar Yadav of the Allahabad High Court made headlines for a 12-page order he issued denying bail to a person accused of ‘cow slaughter’. Amongst many other dubitable observations on why the cow should be declared India’s national animal, the statement also read:

“scientists believe [that] the cow is the only animal that both inhales and exhales oxygen”. It is shocking to see branches of the government using the supposed ‘belief’ of scientists to add credibility to falsehoods like these. This rhetoric has not been seen at this scale before in India. 

Newly independent India in the mid-20th century was, in contrast, making a sincere commitment to scientific progress and economic growth. National leaders, including BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, held pro-science views. Infrastructural monuments like dams, steel plants and atomic energy reactors became the “temples of modern India”. Alongside the application of industrialisation, the value of science-based development was also seen in the establishment of state-funded and supported research and educational institutions including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). These developments did not by any means benefit our population uniformly across multiple axes of marginalisation, but were significant beginnings nonetheless.

Rajalakshmi’s book Applied Nutrition also includes an appendix with ‘Scientific Names of the Foodstuffs with their Hindi Versions’ ensuring that her book is applied in Hindi-speaking regions.

Among the scientists contributing to this national effort of Indianisation of science, was biochemist R. Rajalakshmi, who studied at McGill University, and worked at the University of Adelaide on a Rockefeller ICMR postdoctoral fellowship before retiring as the Head of the Department of Biochemistry at Baroda University in 1986. Both her children are scientists, too. In 2009, her son, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosomes. Rajalakshmi passed away two years before this. 

Rajalakshmi’s most important work was her book Applied Nutrition, which made the principles of nutrition relevant to Indian diets keeping in mind available grains, vegetables, herbs, etc. The preface to the first edition of her book, published in 1969, emphasises that ideas of nutrition needed to be translated out of the Eurocentric context because the “conditions prevailing in India and other developing countries are so different from those prevailing in the affluent countries of the west.” She was keen to bridge that gap and her book seeks to apply existing scientific knowledge in the field of nutrition to local conditions. 

Above is an alphabetic list of the foods cited in her book including common ingredients whose English names are far less common such as hing and supari (asafoetida and areca nut). On publication, the book sold out so quickly that both a reprint and a new edition were requested almost immediately. She wrote a new preface to the second edition in 1974, by which time local Indian foods and their combination were becoming quite the vogue amongst international organisations. She said, “I like to believe that the book [has]… contributed in some small measure for this change in climate.”

Rajalakshmi’s attitudes towards nutrition, and people across caste-lines cooking and eating together were unusual in her time; they remain relatively rare even today.

Rajalakshmi held classes on language and nutrition for children from marginalised caste backgrounds. She encouraged children of all castes to share in the cooking and eating. Rajalakshmi acknowledged that sharing meals across castes was a “violation of unwritten codes and very much went against convention.” Her attitudes towards nutrition, and building community across caste-lines were unusual in her time; they remain relatively rare even today. While there are well-intentioned global trends around sustainable eating, meat-substitutes, and vegan diets as a response to climate change, vegetarianism in India remains a bastion of those with caste privilege. According to scholar Suryakant Waghmore’s Scroll piece, the associations of purity with vegetarian food and the social and physical distance between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and people, speak volumes about the ideologies that have over the years continued their stronghold on our population and politics. 

In addition to her work with children, she organised and addressed political activities for women. Her areas of interest and influence were broad. She was a vocal supporter of Gandhi, which was unsurprisingly a very common view in the mid-1900s. In addition to this, Rajalakshmi did categorically express a Gandhi-related discontent with capitalism. She writes (in an essay called ‘The Diamond on my Nose’ from the personal collections of her family) of having a, “similar desire to revolt against Coca-Cola which has for me associations of consumerism, capitalism, and American domination. Gandhi shook up the British Empire with his salt Satyagraha (non-violent political resistance) I wish I could organise a similar worldwide Satyagraha against Coca-Cola.” She not only attended political meetings of national significance, but also those of linguistic scholars of both Tamil and Sanskrit, and Periyar’s newly forming political party, the Dravidar Kazhagam, whose off-shoots dominate Tamil Nadu politics to date. She described herself as ‘the only Brahman and the only woman at these meetings’ showing signs of anti-caste and feminist consciousness.

Recently, the most unapologetically right-wing state governments in India have appropriated narratives of science and technology in their public messaging. Even on issues centered around religious sentiment, such as on the Brij Bhumi redevelopment, which would be centered in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi

 Adityanath said in August 2021, “We are looking at a blend of modern technology and the cultural and spiritual heritage for the development of the region.” His recommendations to achieve such a ‘blend’ in the state included a ban on the sale of liquor and meat as he called on locals to take up selling of milk.

Letter from Janaki to Cyril Darlington at the University of Oxford, dated 25 September 1953, detailing her Directorship of the Botanical Survey of India, resentment against English authorities, and description of Nehru as a ‘gem’

This mode of concealing religiously motivated reconstruction under the guise of development is a far cry from the developmental discourse of the mid-1900s. Debates in development then were centered around poverty alleviation, self-governance, the tension between displacing people and infrastructural construction, corporate and foreign investment and so on. For example, E. K. Janaki Ammal, who was likely the first Indian woman to obtain her PhD in 1931, was pro-Nehruvian in her views while being skeptical of Gandhi’s ideas of village swaraj. Though never vocally political, her contributions to development in the country from within her field were immense. In a letter from 1976 she describes the changes taking place in India to a friend in the UK, 

No more Rajas. Equality of status for men and women. Caste disappearing. All those are healthy signs. There had to be cleaning up of lingering “ailments” and Indira came forward to do it. She is stronger than her father! As for Gandhiji he would like to see us going about in bullock carts!

Janaki Ammal dedicated most of her career to cultivating hybrid variants of sugarcane to increase crop productivity sustainably in India. Her commitment to sustainability is also visible in her opposition to the Grow More Food campaign, which put at risk forests and wildlife in its wake, in order to increase cultivable land area. 

She was a pioneer in environmental work, and indigenous approaches to land use. Her activism later on in life was as important as her research in contributing to the nation. She fought for the preservation of the Silent Valley in Kerala, where she was keen to do a chromosome survey of rare species of plants as an act of protest against their destruction, and for many other such causes elsewhere in the country. In letters to Cyril Darlington dated 31 August and 19 November 1978, she voiced her concerns regarding deforestation undertaken by big businesses in the name of commercial cultivation in the Nilgiri Hills. 

  • Three famous Barbour Scholars: Sugi Mibi, E. K. Janaki, Lucy Wong, University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library Archives

Her work is a testament to how science and scientists in the 20th century served people and biomes across India, in sharp contrast to the current government’s self-serving deployment of scientific and development rhetoric. Deforestation and displacement in the name of development are not new, but over the past many years, this damage has been on the rise. From undermining the National Green Tribunal and partnership with repeat climate offenders like Adani, to razing forest land and wildlife sanctuaries by exempting industrial projects from having to acquire environmental permits, the incumbent government has shown scant regard for the environment. 

The relationship between science and nationalism in India has been shifting dramatically around us. We are witnessing the relationship move away from a nation-building agenda through the creation of infrastructure, localisation of scientific knowledge, research into local and economically-viable ways to benefit our population, and the building awareness in regional languages. Instead today, we are increasingly seeing a co-option of the sciences by unabashed religious jingoism. It seems like the continued efforts of the scientific community are not yet enough to fend off these changing winds. 

Acknowledgements: Season 6 is supported by contributors to our crowdfunding campaign, STEMpeers, and also by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage. The featured image was created by our Season 6 artist Ayesha Punjabi with the help of photographs from Megha Harish.

About the author(s)
Megha Harish

Megha is a writer of poetry and prose whose past academic research has focused on education in India (historical and contemporary). Since her MPhil at the Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies in 2016–17, Megha has been working in the not-for-profit sector. She currently works at the Common Purpose Charitable Trust and with One Future Collective providing accessible mental health support during the pandemic. She otherwise enjoys cooking, diving and bouldering.