Indians might be aggressive devotees to different kinds of female deities. But till today patriarchy is deeply rooted in India. Yet, there are some women who have been successful in discrediting years of systematic oppression and have accented in their field of academia. The below mentioned are 15 female academicians who have succeeded in their fields and have been an inspiration for millions of other Indian women.
15 Indian Women Scientists
Dr.Tessy Thomas was born in 1963 in Kerala. She is the Director General of Aeronautical Systems and the former Project Director for Agni-IV missile in Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
She is dubbed as the ‘Missile Woman of India’ as she was the first woman scientist to head a missile project in India.
She grew up in Alappuzha near Thumba Rocket Launching Station, which, as mentioned by her in many interviews, has been the reason behind her fascination for rockets and missiles.
In 1985 Dr.Thomas got her B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from Calicut University. In 1986 she obtained an ME in Guided Missiles from Institute of Armament Technology (now Defense Institute of Advanced Technology), Pune.
She got her PhD in Missile Guidance from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad, in 2014.
She joined the DRDO in 1988. She was appointed by Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam to work with others in the development of the ballistic missile, Agni. Dr.Thomas was the Associate Project Director for Agni-III and the Project Director of Agni-IV and Agni-V.
Agni-IV and Agni-V tested successfully in 2011 and 2012 respectively. In 018, she got appointed as the Director General, Aeronautical Systems of DRDO.
Dr.Tessy Thomas was honoured with the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for her work in developing missile technology in India.
Sunetra Gupta is an infectious disease epidemiologist and a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford, England.
She has done research about infectious diseases like Malaria and Influenza. She has done and is still pursuing research on Covid-19.
Her area of study is the evolution of diversity in pathogens with particular focus on Bacterial Meningitis, Malaria and Influenza.
She uses simple mathematical models to understand the population structure of pathogens. She collaborates with laboratory and field scientists to develop these hypotheses and test them.
She is also a novelist. She is also the recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award and the Southern Arts Literature Prize.
Professor Gupta was one of the very few female scientists whose specially commissioned portraits were shown at Royal Society’s ‘Great Women in Science’ show as part of its summer science exhibition in London in 2013.
Asima Chatterjee was born on 23 September 1917 in Bengal. She was the eldest of the two children of Dr.Indra Narayan Mukherjee and his wife Kamala Devi.
She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in science from an Indian University. She has been the recipient of several awards such as the S S Bhatnagar award, the C V Raman award, the P C Ray award and the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award.
Professor Chatterjee was an organic chemist known for her work in the field of medicinal chemistry. Her work includes research on vinca alkaloids, anti-epileptic drugs, anti- malarial drugs etc. She has also authored books on medicinal plants found in India.
She published more than 400 research papers in national and international journals. In 1940, she founded and headed the Department of Chemistry in Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata.
In 1945 she married Professor Baradananda Chatterjee, a famous Physical Chemist who was the Head of the Department of Chemistry, Geology and Metallurgy and Vice-Principal, Bengal Engineering College.
In 1947 she took study leave from Lady Brabourne College, to work on various projects. First she worked on Naturally Occurring Glycosides with Professor L.Zechmeister at California Institute of Technology.
During 1948-49 she worked on Carotenoids and Provitamin for which she received the Watumull fellowship. And between 1949-50 she worked with Professor P.Karrer at University of Zurich on Biologically Active Indole Alkaloids.
She returned to India in 1950 and continued her research on alkaloids and coumarins. In 1960, she got elected as a Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India.
She has also been the recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1961 for her work on Chemistry of Natural Products. In 1975 she earned the place of being the first woman to get elected as the General President of the Indian Science Congress.
In 1975 she was honoured with the title ‘Padma Bhushan’. 1975 was recognised as the International Women’s year and Professor Asima Chatterjee was honoured as the Woman of the Year by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce for her scientific achievements.
In the Devadasi system it was customary to make girls of pre-pubescent age undergo a religious ritual that marked them as a potential concubine.
The acceptance of Devadasis as concubines qualified them to learn music and dance and allowed them to perform in front of an audience in public spaces.
Either a male patron could choose a Devadasi or a Devadasi’s mother could choose a male patron for her daughter.
Following that the daughter would begin her journey as a Devadasi by performing her art for her benefactor and also would lead a sexual life with him.
Once she has children, she would pass on her art to them. But neither she nor her children could have the rights to their benefactor’s name or inheritance.
If the patron did not beget a male heir with his legal wife but did so with a Devadasi, the male child would still not have the rights to do the final rituals for his biological father in the event of his death.
The only option for the male child to win bread is to learn his mother’s art. And when Devadasis didn’t have female children, they would adopt girls so that they could pass on their art and keep their profession alive.
Amidst so much stigma and discrimination towards Devadasis and women in general, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s success challenged patriarchy in every way possible.
Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was born on 30 July 1880 in Pudukkottai, Madras Province. She was born to Chandrammal and Narayanaswamy.
Her parents’ marriage was considered pretty rare those days as her mother was a Devadasi and her father Narayanaswamy was born in a Brahmin family.
He was also the Principal of Maharaja’s college in Pudukkottai. When Narayanaswamy married Chandrammal, his family ostracised him. From a very young age she was intimate with Devadasi culture and was very close to her maternal cousins who were Devadasis.
At first Muthulakshmi was enrolled at a local thinnai school. Right from a very young age she was brilliant at studying. Upon maturity she was home schooled by her own father.
Despite opposition from relatives when she went to high school in Pudukkottai, all hell broke loose. At that point there was only one high school in Pudukkottai and that too was for boys.
Some parents threatened to withdraw their sons from school if Muthulakshmi continued to study there as she was the daughter of a Devadasi. A teacher decided to resign as well.
This was despite separating the 40 boys and three girls in class by drawing a huge curtain. But the enlightened and forward thinking Maharaja of Pudukkottai, Marthanda Bhairava Thondaman, always had her back.
Anyone and everyon’s opposition to her admission at Pudukkottai’s high school were disregarded due to her impeccable academic records and Maharaja’s complete support.
After her education in Pudukkottai, Muthulakshmi went on to study medicine at Madras Medical College(MMC) despite stiff opposition.
She refuted her parents’ wish for her to marry and wanted to pursue a medical degree. The Maharaja of Pudukkottai even gave her a handsome scholarship of Rs.150 when she got admitted at MMC.
She was the only female student at MMC in 1907. She broke barriers in MMC also by opting surgery as her specialization. In those days women were considered faint hearted and not fit to do surgeries.
At the end of her four years at MMC, the then white principal of MMC was seen running in the corridor of MMC and screaming with a paper in his hands: “ The first girl student for surgery has scored 100 percent in surgery.”
She went on to become the first female House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital at Madras.
Even as a student at MMC she would regularly attend lectures at the Theosophical society. This was the period during which she became friends with Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant.
After the death of her 13 year old cousin during childbirth, she took care of her cousin’s child while studying medicine. The struggles faced by her own Devadasi cousins led her to make up her mind to fight for the abolition of the Devadasi system and remove the stigma attached to Devadasis.
At the age of 28 in 1914 she married Sundara Reddy and had two sons with him. She established the Women’s Indian Association and was made its first member in 1918.
Later she went to London to pursue higher studies. On her return to India she was requested by other members of the Women’s Indian Association to join the Madras Legislative Council in 1927.
She was nominated as Vice-President for the Madras Legislative Assembly, making her the first Indian woman to ever be part of a Legislative Council.
She believed that the Devadasi system was an inhuman practice and so she initiated a bill to pass a law against dedicating Devadasis to Hindu temples.
She also fought to abolish the practice of hiring wet-nurses for babies born into rich and upper caste families and helped Sister R.S.Subbulakshmi in her fight for widow remarriage and education.
She fought for women’s voting rights and for raising the marriageable age for girls to 16.
When three young girls who had run away from being dedicated to temples, knocked at her door, she took them in.
She wanted to enroll them in a school or a hostel for education. Since schools and hostels were ruled by caste, the girls were rejected everywhere. Finally in 1931, she decided to open ‘ Avvai Home’ in Chennai.
The home took in a lot of girls which included older girls. Teacher training, nursing, handicrafts, home science etc were taught to equip girls to work. They were also allowed to learn music and dancing if they wanted to.
She argued against aggressively patriarchal upper caste legislators to pass the bills that supported the increment of legally marriageable age for women and the abolition of the Devadasi system.
After witnessing her sister’s death due to cancer, she wanted to open an institute to treat cancer. Using the Women’s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund, she opened the Adyar Cancer Institute in 1954.
It was the first specialized cancer center in South India and the second in India at the time. 64 years later, even today, Adyar Cancer Institute holds a legendary status nationally and internationally.
She received Padma Bhushan in 1956 and died at the age of 81 in 1968.
Dr. Yamuna Krishnan is currently a professor at the Department of Chemistry, University of Chicago. She was born in 1974 in Parappanangadi, in the Malappuram district of Kerala to P.T.Krishnan and Mini.
In 1993, she got her Bachelor’s in Chemistry from the Women’s Christian College in Chennai. In 1997, she secured a Master’s of Science in Chemical Sciences from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
In 2002, she acquired her PhD in Organic Chemistry from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
She worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and an 1851 Research Fellow from 2001 to 2004 at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK.
From 2005 to 2009 she worked as a ‘Fellow E’ at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bangalore. From 2009 to 2013, she continued as Reader F at the NCBS, TIFR, Bangalore.
In 2013, she received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, the highest award in India for achievement in the field of science and technology.
She is the youngest recipient of the said award. She won it for the Chemical Science category. In the same year, she was promoted to Associate Professor G at NCBS,TIFR, Bangalore.
Since 2014, she has been working for the University of Chicago as a Professor of Chemistry.
Her research areas are related to dynamics of nucleic acids, nucleic acid nanotechnology, cellular and subcellular technologies.
Dr. Indira Hinduja is a gynecologist and an infertility expert. She is an expert in the Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT) technique.
She secured her PhD from the Bombay University for her thesis called ‘Human in vitro Fertilizations and Embryo Transfer’.
She is the doctor behind the birth of India’s first GIFT baby on 4 January 1988. She delivered India’s second test tube baby at KEM hospital on 6 August 1986.
She is also the brain behind the oocyte donation technique which helps menopausal and premature ovarian failure patients conceive. This technique saw its first baby on 24 January 1991.
She is a full-time Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at the P.D.Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai. She is also a honorary Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at PD Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mumbai.
Dr.Aditi Pant is an Indian Oceanographer. She was born in Nagpur. She got her BSc from the University of Pune. Then she got a US Government Scholarship to do a Master’s In Marine Sciences at the University of Hawaii.
She then went on to pursue Phd in Physiology in Marine Algae at Westfield College of London University. Her thesis was in the subject matter of Physiology of Marine Algae.
Between December 1983 and March 1984, Dr.Pant went on an expedition to Antarctica. India signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1981 which was spearheaded by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The treaty led to a series of expeditions to Antarctica. Dr.Pant and her team were part of the third expedition. She was one of the first Indian women who went to Antarctica for research.
She received the Antarctic Award for her contributions to the Indian Antarctic Programme. She shared the award with her colleagues Sudipta Sengupta, Jaya Naithini and Kanwal Viku. She is also the recipient of the SERC award.
Dr.Shubha Tole was born in a family of academicians. Her mother Aruna P.Tole, was an occupational therapist who was responsible for the design of aids, prostheses and appliances for cancer patients.
Her father was the director of SAMEER, an Institute under the Department of Electronics, Government of India. Dr.Tole got her Bachelor’s in Life Sciences and Biochemistry at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
For her MS and PhD degrees, Tole went to California Institute of Technology. Dr.Tole did her post-doctoral research at the University of Chicago. Currently she works at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Her work involves the study of the developing brain.
Darshan Ranganathan was born on 4 June 1941 to Vidyavati Markan and Shanti Swarup in delhi. She was educated in Delhi and received her PhD from Delhi University in 1967.
Though she started out as a lecturer, she went on to become the Head of Department of the Department of Chemistry in Miranda College.
She received the 1851 Research Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 which helped her conduct postdoctoral research at Imperial College London with professor D.H.R.Barton.
In 1970, she began research at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. The same year she married Subramania Ranganathan, a Bioorganic Chemist, Professor and Head of Department of Chemistry at the IIT, Kanpur.
She authored ‘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) with her husband.
Then she began work at Regional Research Laboratory, Trivandrum in 1993 and at IICT, Hyderabad in 1998, where she was appointed as the Deputy Director.
During these years she also conducted collaborations with Isabella Karle at the U.S.Naval Research Laboratory.
Dr.Darshan Ranganathan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and passed away on her 60th birthday in 2001.
Dr.Janaki Ammal Edavalath Kakkat was born in 1897 in the Thiyya family of Diwan Bahadur Edavalath Kakkat Krishnan and Devi Kuruvayi in Tellicherry.
Her mother was the love child of John Child Hannyngton (Colonial Administrator and Resident at Travancore) and Kunhi Kurumbi Kuruvai. Later in life, her mother fell in love with Walter Gave King.
Dr. Janaki Ammal did her schooling at Sacred Heart Convent in Thalassery. Following which she went to Queen Mary’s College, Madras.
She secured an Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency College. In 1924, she went to the University of Michigan to do a Master’s in Botany.
After which she worked at Women’s Christian College for a few years. And then went back to University of Michigan to do a PhD.
She worked at many places before settling in Chennai, where she worked as an Emeritus scientist at the Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) in Botany, University of Madras. She worked there until she drew her last breath on 7 February 1984 at the age of 86.
Her research was on chromosome studies of a wide range of garden plants. She co-authored ‘The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’ with C.D.Darlington in 1945.
Dr.Paramjit Khurana was born on 15 August 1956. She got her Bachelor, Master, M.Phil and PhD degrees in Botany from University of Delhi.
Dr.Khurana started her career as a Scientist at University of Delhi in 1983 and then went on to be a lecturer at University of Delhi till 1987. During 1987-88, she worked as a Research Associate at Michigan State University.
Upon her return to India from the U.S, she joined University of Delhi once again. Till date she continues to work as a Professor in the Department of Plant Molecular Biology, University of Delhi, South Campus.
She was also the Head of Department of this department from 2004 to 2007.
Dr.Khurana’s research covers Wheat and Seribiotechnology. Her major contribution has been to develop all weather crops.
The maiden name of Anandhibai Gopalrao Joshi was Yamuna and she was born on 31 March 1865 in a family of landlords in Kalyan, Maharashtra.
She was married off to Gopalrao Joshi at the age of nine. He was a widower and 20 years her senior.
Gopalrao Joshi started as postal clerk in Kalyan. Then, he got transferred to Alibag and then finally to Kolkata. In Kolkata,Mr.Joshi made Mrs.Joshi learn to read, write and speak Sanskrit and English.
At the age of fourteen Anandhibai Joshi gave birth to a boy, who lived only for ten days due to lack of proper medical care. This incident was a driving force for her to become a physician.
Her husband encouraged her to study and wanted her to pursue medicine. Anandhibai applied for the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Her plans to study in the west received very strong opposition from the Indian society. But Gopalrao Joshi was very firm in his decision and sent Anandhibai to America.
Anandhibai had been suffering from minor illnesses for a very long time. She constantly felt fatigued and weak.
She returned to India in 1886 after completing her education in the U.S. She was welcomed in India with a grand welcome and the princely state of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician in charge of the female ward at the local Albert Edward Hospital.
Her illnesses kept increasing and so medicine was regularly sent to her by her friend from America. But nothing worked and so she died of tuberculosis on 26 February 1887 before she turned 22.
Her legacy still lives as she was the first Indian female practitioner of western medicine alongside Kadambini Ganguly.
Dr.Suman Sahai secured her PhD from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 1975. After which she worked at the University of Alberta, University of Chicago and the University of Heidelberg respectively.
At the University of Heidelberg she obtained her habilitation in human genetics. She has done extensive research on genetically modified organisms. She is a recipient of Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India.
In April 2013, Dr.Sahai was proved of having committed plagiarism in her habilitation thesis, which she submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 1986. Subsequently Dr.Sahai had to renounce her venia legendi.
She is the director of the NGO, Gene Campaign. Her NGO works for food and livelihood security.
Usha Barwale Zahr
Dr. Usha Barwale Zehr is the Director and Chief Technology Officer at Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Private Limited, India. She obtained her PhD from University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.
Then she worked at Purdue University in the Sorghum Improvement Programme. Her work focuses on the enhancement of the quality and productivity of seeds. She is also the Director of Barwale Foundation, a non-profit research Foundation.
She is also a board member of the ‘Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre’ and ‘Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa’.