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Current Affairs 2023

Kamala Sohonie - UPSC Current Affairs

Kamala Sohonie, an Indian biochemist, defied societal norms to become the first Indian woman to receive a PhD in a scientific discipline. Her groundbreaking research and perseverance continue to inspire generations of aspiring scientists.

Jun 19, 2023

4 min read

Imagine a time when women in science were deemed unfit and unworthy of pursuing their passion for research. In the face of such adversity, Kamala Sohonie, born on June 18, 1911, in Indore, India, defied societal expectations and blazed a trail that would forever change the landscape of scientific exploration.

 

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Kamala's journey began with her family's rich scientific heritage. Both her father, Narayanarao Bhagvat, and her uncle, Madhavrao Bhagvat, were chemists and alumni of the esteemed Tata Institute of Sciences (later known as the Indian Institute of Science) in Bengaluru. Inspired by her family's legacy, Kamala graduated in 1933 with a BSc degree in Chemistry from Bombay University, following in their footsteps.

 

However, her aspirations to further her scientific education hit a roadblock when she applied for a research fellowship at the Indian Institute of Science. The then-Director and Nobel Laureate, Prof. C. V. Raman, rejected her application, citing a belief that women were not capable of excelling in scientific research. Undeterred by this setback, Kamala took a bold stand. Holding a peaceful protest, a "satyagraha," outside Prof. Raman's office, she fought for her rightful place in the scientific community.

 

Her determination and unwavering spirit moved Prof. Raman, who eventually relented. However, he imposed stringent conditions: Kamala would not be admitted as a regular student, she would be on probation for the entire first year, her work would only be recognized upon Prof. Raman's satisfaction, and she should not disrupt the male-dominated environment. Kamala accepted these terms, making her the first woman to be admitted to the Indian Institute of Science in 1933. Despite the initial humiliation and bias she faced, her courage opened doors for countless other women to follow their scientific aspirations.

 

Under the guidance of Sri Srinivasayya, Kamala's mentor at the Indian Institute of Science, she embarked on groundbreaking research. Her studies focused on proteins in milk, legumes, and plant tissues, particularly significant in the context of India. It was during this time that she made a profound discovery—the enzyme "Cytochrome C," which played a vital role in the energy production process across various organisms.

 

Kamala's exceptional research and academic prowess earned her an invitation to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. She worked under the guidance of Dr. Derek Richter in the Frederick G. Hopkins laboratory. Kamala's dedication and intellect shone through as she studied the intricacies of plant tissues and, during her work on potatoes, stumbled upon the remarkable enzyme "Cytochrome C" once again.

 

In 1939, armed with a PhD and a burning desire to contribute to her nation's struggle for independence, Kamala returned to India. She joined Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi as a Professor and Head of the Department of Biochemistry. Her expertise in the field of nutrition research led her to the Nutrition Research Laboratory in Coonoor, where she delved into the effects of vitamins.

 

Life took a new turn for Kamala in 1947 when she married M.V. Sohonie, an actuary. Together, they relocated to Mumbai, where Kamala continued her pursuit of scientific excellence. She became a Professor at the Royal Institute of Science, dedicating her efforts to studying the nutritional aspects of legumes. Despite facing gender bias, she persevered, inspiring her students and conducting groundbreaking research.

 

One of Kamala's notable endeavors was her study of "Neera," a palm extract, at the suggestion of President Rajendra Prasad. Her findings revealed significant quantities of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and iron in this drink. Concentrating Neera into palm jaggery and molasses offered an affordable dietary supplement that could improve the health of malnourished individuals, including pregnant women and adolescents from tribal communities. For her remarkable work in this field, she received the prestigious Rashtrapati Award.

 

Beyond her scientific accomplishments, Kamala remained a passionate advocate for consumer safety. As an active member and President of the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), she contributed to the organization's mission to protect and empower consumers. Her articles in the organization's magazine, "Keemat," shed light on important issues.

 

Tragically, Kamala Sohonie left us in 1998, shortly after collapsing during a felicitation ceremony. Her remarkable contributions to science and her relentless pursuit of knowledge continue to inspire countless individuals today.

 

In recognition of her indomitable spirit and her 112th birth anniversary on June 18, 2023, Google paid tribute to Kamala Sohonie with a special Google Doodle, celebrating her legacy and the significant impact she made on the scientific community.

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