Dr. Kamala Sohonie: First female scholar of IIsc Bangalore

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc bangalore) is a public, deemed, research university aimed for higher education and research in fields of science, engineering, design, and management. It is located in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. The institute was established in 1909 with active support from Jamsetji Tata and thus is also locally known as the Tata Institute. It was granted the status of a deemed university in 1958 and the Institute of Eminence status in 2018.

Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (fellow of the Royal Society) became the first Indian director of the Indian Institute of Science in 1933. There he founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in the same year. Raman was an Indian physicist known mainly for his work in the field of light scattering. He later established the Raman Research Institute in 1948 where he worked to his last days. Sir C. V. Raman was the first asian and the first non-white to receive a Nobel Prize in Sciences.

Sir. C. V. Raman, the first director of IISc Bangalore.

When the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was established in 1911, there were plans for residences for staff, servants, police, and students. Unfortunately, there were no plans for accommodation of female students in the campus. It was almost a decade later that IISc enrolled its first female student, Miss M. M. Mehta, followed by Miss R. K. Christie in 1922. It was yet another decade later that the third woman was approved in the list of women scholars. Miss. Kamala Bhagvat, being the third women was apparently the first to work under the Indian Director of IISc, Sir C. V. Raman. Miss. Kamala was later known as Dr. Kamala Sohonie.

Educational background

Kamala was born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh to a family of distinguished chemists. Her father and uncle both being an alumni of IISc Bangalore (known as the Tata Institute of Sciences at that time) sparked the ambition in Kamala to pursue chemistry in higher education. She did her schooling at the prestigious St. Xavier’s College and topped her chemistry and physics examinations from the Bombay University earning her BSc in 1933.

Kamala Bhagvat during her tenure at Nutrition Research Laboratory.
Kamala Bhagvat during her tenure as faculty at Nutrition Research Laboratory, Coonoor (mid-1940s). 

Her struggle into IIsc:

IISc Bangalore being the top priorities in her educational catalogue was primarily aimed. She applied to the IISc for a research fellowship, being assured of her qualifications. However, she faced a stout rejection. She couldn’t believe it, especially since it was on the basis that Prof. C. V. Raman, the Director of IISc, did not consider women competent enough to pursue research.

Dr. Kamala being a young and passionate student, decided to face the situation and overcome it in her own way. Being a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, she decided to initiate a Satyagrah unless her queries and objections of being rejected were answered and justified by Sir C. V. Raman himself. Kamala was not a woman to sit on the sidelines. She demanded him to provide written reasons for his decision to deny her admission, and sat in front of his office in protest.

Owing to multiple requests from her family members and lack of adequate justification, he finally agreed to admit her under his guidance, but only under three conditions:

  1. She will be in probation for 1 year until Raman deemed her work worthy.
  2. She would have to work whenever her guide required her to, irrespective of time of day,
  3. She will not spoil the environment for other researchers (i.e. she will not be a “distraction” to the male students).

Kamala agreed to all the terms as it was the only option left with her to follow her passion. However, later she mentioned:

“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. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?”

Only a year into her MSc and Kamala had already proved her worth to Raman, who not only allowed her to stay on as a student, but also opened the doors to other women in the institute. She also fought for women’s living quarters on campus. Kamala wrote a letter to Raman and his wife, then the Honorary Warden of Women’s Hostel, IISc Bangalore, requesting changes to security and making it a permanent facility for more women. Kamala graduated with distinction in her M.Sc from Biochemistry in 1936.


Dr. Kamala later joined the Royal Institute of Science (now Institute of Science, Mumbai) as a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, and worked on the nutritional aspects of legumes. Her eventual appointment to the position of Director of the Institute is believed to have been delayed by 4 years due to existing gender bias in the scientific community. During this period, Kamala and her students conducted important research on three groups of food items which were majorly consumed by financially disadvantaged sections of people in India.

Kamala started work on ‘Neera‘ (sap extracted from the inflorescence of various species of toddy palms) on the suggestion of the then President of India, Rajendra Prasad. She found significant quantities of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and iron in the drink, and that these elements can survive concentration of Neera into palm jaggery and molasses.

Later studies indicated that the inclusion of Neera in the diets of malnourished adolescent children and pregnant women from tribal communities as an inexpensive dietary supplement led to significant improvement in health. She was awarded the Rashtrapati Award for her work in this subject. (Reference: Wikipedia)

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