MUMBAI: In an adulteration-battling, early-1970s Mumbai, when the silver foil covering local gulab jamuns was made up of 98% aluminium, an exhibition in Girgaum — brimming with spurious food colouring agents, sawdust-filled powders and false weights — debunked various kitchen myths for the “housewife”.
Among those who demonstrated on-the-spot food quality tests at this Consumer Guidance Society of India show was an unassuming scientist who had herself been subjected to a year-long quality test before she could enter a man’s world. Kamala Sohonie, then director of Bombay’s Institute of Science, had become the country’s first woman PhD in biochemistry in the 1930s.
Physicist C V Raman, then director of Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science who — despite the fact that she had topped her chemistry and physics examinations from the Bombay University and was all set to follow the footsteps of her father and uncle, both of whom were noted biochemists — had rejected her application for a research fellowship in the 1930s as he did not consider women “competent”.
Angry at being denied an admission, the MP-born Gandhian daughter of scientist Nayanrao Bhagwat sat in front of Raman’s office in protest. Raman finally relented on three conditions: One, she will be on probation for one year until Raman deemed her work “worthy”; two, she would work whenever her guide required her to, irrespective of time of day; and three she will not “spoil the environment” for other researchers.
Within a year, Raman not only deemed the quiet Kamala, who studied the nutritional elements in milk, pulses and legumes, worthy of staying on as a student but also played tennis with her. Kamala wrote to Raman and his wife, then Honorary Warden of Women’s Hostel, requesting a permanent facility for more women.
Later, potatoes would lead the nutritionist to a path-breaking discovery. Invited to UK’s Cambridge University to work under the renowned neuro-chemist Dr Derek Richter, she studied the enzyme ‘cytochrome C’ in potatoes and found two things: The enzyme was present in every cell of the plant tissue and it was involved in oxidation of all plant cells.
Peers encouraged her to apply for a fellowship with Frederick G Hopkins, who had won the Nobel Prize for his work on vitamins. Under his guidance, Kamala wrote her thesis on the enzyme which, unlike typical dissertations, was only 40 pages long. It made her the first Indian woman biochemist to earn her PhD in the field in 1939.
Interestingly, on the ship back to India, Kamala was mistaken for a Spanish woman, noted a report in TOI.
Following the outbreak of war, the Italian ship would be diverted to Singapore, where she was confined to a hotel by Italians.
Marriage to M V Sohonie, an actuary who proposed to her, brought her to Mumbai in 1947. Here, as a professor at the Royal Institute of Science, she not only worked on the nutritional aspects of legumes but also, upon the suggestion of then president Rajendra Prasad, started to investigate ‘neera’, a popular drink made from sweet palm nectar, legumes and rice flour. Its significant Vitamin A, C and iron content saw her pushing it as an inexpensive dietary supplement for malnourished adolescents and pregnant women from tribal communities-an effort that translated into a in Award.
At the Institute of Science, “she was kept away from her rightful position as Director of the Institute for four full years (maybe due to internal politics),” wrote biographer Vasumati Dhuru about Dr Kamala in a book on women scientists.
As one of the nine women who set up the Consumer Guidance Society Of India, which tested the quality of food in the market, she called the nankhatai biscuits served by the state’s nutrition programme to slum children “unfit” and the quality of items sold in ration shops “rotten”.
In 1986, she would show how government milk sold in red-striped bottles was deficient in fat and stale.
After years spent calling out adulteration in food and writing books, Dr Kamala collapsed at an event held by the Indian Council of Medical Research in her honour in 1997 and passed away at age 86. Today, Bengaluru’s IISc boasts several women’s hostels.

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