Women who contributed to shaping science and medicine in India

Women scientists of India

Women
who contributed to shaping science and medicine in India

New
Delhi, November 30th 2019: Much has been written on the life and work of renowned
scientist like C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, S.N. Bose and Homi Jehangir Bhabha,
but the contribuition of women scientists is almost ignored. In recent decades,
a few books have been published to address this void.

By Dr. Rajinder Singh

In the beginning of 1990s,  Dr Sharayu Bhatia, herself a pioneering medical professional, wrote a monograph titled “The First – Life sketches of medical women in India” with a foreword by another pioneer Dr. Sushila Nayar. The book had featured 27 Indian and western women in the field of medicine who had lived in the 19th and 20th centuries such as the first missionary in India to initiate medical relief, the first Indian to study medicine, and the first women to receive government scholarship for study in England. Another important compendium on women scientists – Lilavati’s daughter: Women scientists of India, was published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore in 2008.

Now
a new book by Dr. Anjana Chattopadhyay details life sketches of 175 women scientists
– Indians or foreigeners who were either born or had worked in India. Dr.
Chattopadhyay is known to the historians of science for her monumental books,
“Encyclopaedia of Indian Scientists” (1995) and “Dictionary of Indian
Scientists” (2002). Her new book “Women scientists in India: Lives, Struggles
& Achievements” includes 14 entries from the first book and 40 from the
second book. In the new book, short biographies are better illustrated than in
the previous books.

The
women featured in the book were included based on certain criteria such as reception
of national and international awards; contribution to specialised or
super-specialised subjects; establishment of departments and institutions in
the field of science; ‘scientists, who made new theories, discoveries and
innovations, implementation of which made visible impact upon the society.’ The
majority of the listed scientists belong to medicine and related fields, while
spme are from the fields of astronomy, botany, chemistry, mathematics and physics.
The book also provides important data such as a list of women Padma awardees in
Medicine from 1954-1999 and full list of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardees from
1958 till date.

It
it interesting to see why women took to work in medicine and health in earlier
times. It emerges that it was due to cultural and religious reasons (such as
wearing ‘Burka’) and other personal reasons that some of the women decided to
study medicine. For instance, fourteen year old, Anandibai Joshi of Bombay lost
her child at the time of delivery, as medical facilities were not available. In
order to help other women, she decided to study medicine.

Even
in the 21st century, people in the West believe that women are supressed in
other parts of the world, whereas in their own countries they have freedom in
all spheres of life. About two to three centuries ago, Christian missionaries
and the colonial powers tried to introduce their education system to ‘civilise’
other nations. The book gives different examples, which demonstrate that not
only within India, but also in western countries, highly educated women did not
get proper recognition. For instance, the Royal Society of London (founded in 1663)
elected women Fellows for ther first time only in in 1944. The Paris Academy of
Sciences (founded 1666) did so in 1979 by electing Y. Choquet-Bruhat as Full
Member.

In
India, the National Academy of Sciences, Indian Academy of Science and National
Institute of Science of India (renamed as Indian National Science Academy) were
established in 1930, 1934 and 1935 respectively. The last two academies elected
E.K. J. Ammal in 1935 and 1957 respectively as the first woman fellow. Dr.
Manju Sharma was elected as the President of the NASI for the year 1995-1996.
In the beginning of 2020, Dr. Chandrima Shaha is going to be the first woman
President of INSA. The present book gives short biographies of Sharma and
Shaha.

The
book is a treasure of knowledge from historical point of view. However, its title
is misleading because neither a doctor nor an administrator nor founder of an
institution could be called a ‘scientist‘ unless he or she has done research
work. From this point of view, some of the women included in the book cant be
called a scientist. For example, Clara A. Swain, who was the first medical
missionary to provide medical relief. In many instances, the author has not
disussed the ‘struggle’ part of women scientists. Still, the book has
sucessfully highlighted contribution of women to social, political and
scientific life in India. It is recommended for general readers, students,
historians of science and technology, and feminism studies. (India Science
Wire)

Women
Scientists in India: Lives, Struggles & Achievements by Dr. Anjana
Chattopadhyay, published by National Book Trust, 2018, 492 pages, Price: Rs.
485.

(Dr. Rajinder Singh is physicist and historian of science a University of Oldenburg, Germany)

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