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Kamala Sohonie: The Persistent Biochemist

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. Today, we'll take a look at a biochemist who paved the way for the Indian women who wanted to study sciences – Kamala Sohonie.

 

Kamala Sohonie was born in 1911 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. In India at the time, women weren't encouraged to study, but Kamala's family supported her in pursuing knowledge. Both her dad and her uncle were chemists and Kamala wanted to follow in their footsteps.

In 1933, she graduated from Bombai University with a BS degree with a major in chemistry and a minor in physics. She went on to apply for a research fellowship at the Indian Institute of Science, but because of her gender, her application was turned down by the director CV Raman, a Nobel prize laureate. Kamala found the reason upsetting and responded by holding a 'satyagraha' (a peaceful protest) in front of his office. He finally gave in and admitted Kamala into the institute, on the condition that she would be on probation the entire first year, her work wouldn't be officially recognized, and she wouldn't act as a 'distraction' to her male colleagues. Although humiliated, Kamala accepted the terms and began working hard, studying proteins in milk and legumes, which are a big part of the Indian diet. Her dedication and work ethic persuaded CV Raman to finally begin accepting female students into the institute in 1937 a year after Kamala gained her MS degree there.

That same year, Kamala got a research scholarship at Cambridge University. She studied plant tissues and during her work on potatoes, she discovered the enzyme 'Cytochrome C' – a small, water-soluble protein that plays the role of transporting electrons in the synthesis of ATP in both plant and animal cells. On this, she published her PhD thesis, making her one of the first Indian women to earn a doctorate, the first one in Britain.

In 1939, Kamala returned to India, first working at a medical college and later shifting her focus to the effects of vitamins at a nutrition research center. She married actuary MV Sohonie, moved to Mumbai, and became a professor at the Royal Institute of Science. With her students, she conducted research on food items mainly consumed by financially disadvantaged people in India. Eventually, she was appointed the director of the institute.

At the request of the then-president of India, Kamala researched a palm drink called Neera and found significant amounts of iron, vitamins A and C, and suggested the benefits of this affordable dietary supplement for malnourished children and pregnant women in tribal communities. As a member of the Consumer Guidance Society of India, she worked to battle food adulteration.

Kamala Sohonie was born at a time and place of great gender inequality, especially in the STEM fields. Thanks to her determination, work ethic, and supportive family, she was able to achieve her dreams, helping to further our knowledge in nutrition and biochemistry as a whole.



 

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