The Science of Feeding the Hungry in India

November 13, 2014

Since September 24, 2014, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has been successfully exploring Mars. The MOM makes history as India’s first interplanetary mission craft. The photo that accompanied much of the coverage about the mission depicted women scientists and staff hugging joyously as the good news hit, prompting articles like “10 Indian Women Scientists You Should Be Proud Of.” We were pleasantly surprised to find that one of the illustrious scientists on that list was a 1938 AAUW International Fellow! We dug into the AAUW archives to uncover the work and history of this groundbreaking woman, Kamala Sohonie.

Sohonie is widely recognized as the first Indian woman to achieve a doctorate in any scientific field; hers was biochemistry. In late-1930s India, this was not an easy thing to do. After finishing at the top of her class at Bombay University (today, the University of Mumbai) with a bachelor’s in chemistry and physics, she decided to continue her research at the Indian Institute of Science, then under the leadership of famed Nobel laureate C.V. Raman. He, however, was not at all interested in having a woman attend the institute, despite Sohonie’s clear aptitude. After a protracted appeal, Sohonie prevailed and was admitted for a probationary period. Reluctantly, Raman eventually changed his mind and let her study and continue researching at the institute.

Kamala Sohonie, image via Facebook

Kamala Sohonie, image via Facebook

Sohonie went on to England’s Cambridge University to continue her work. There, she “isolated and purified for the first time an elusive potato enzyme and worked out the oxidation-reduction process in plant tissues, isolating the enzyme systems associated with plant cytochrome c, and demonstrating that the processes are the same in plants as in animals.” This was the research that would earn her a doctorate.

Sohomie’s interest lay in the nutritive value of foods, and upon her return to India, she set out to study the nutrition of several major foods consumed in India, particularly by the poor. Her work included research on legumes and “neera,” a drink derived from the palm tree. Neera is a very popular drink in India, and extensive studies had never been done before on just what its nutritive value was, though people suspected it to be restorative. During the course of her study, Sohonie found that “neera contains sizable amounts of A and C vitamins and iron, and that the vitamin C can survive the concentration of neera into palm jaggery [a sweetener] and molasses.” This discovery laid the groundwork for using jaggery and molasses as cheap dietary supplements. And Sohonie’s finding led to a crucial humanitarian use: These days, neera is often used to help malnourished children recover their strength.

We’re always glad when AAUW can help women achieve great things, even when they have to go against social norms. From historical firsts like Sohonie’s career to present powerhouses like the women who played a role in the success of the MOM mission, these stories bring home the indisputable importance of access to education and the inspiring results it can yield.

Kamala Bhagwat Sohonie’s AAUW International Crusade Fellowship was funded through the efforts of the Million Dollar Fellowship campaign. Beginning in 1934, 23 Crusade fellowships were awarded (13 national and 10 international).


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