A pioneer of her generation
At a time when women were expected to cook and raise a passel of brats, Dr. Sree Ramanujam was storming male bastions on her way to a doctorate in biophysics.
Sree Ramanujam: role model even today
SHE WAS married off at the tender age of 12 and would have ended up a housewife raising a large family like most of her contemporaries. But it was not to be in the case of Sree Ramanujam, who pursued higher education and went on to secure a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in the US. She was perhaps the first woman from the then Mysore State to secure a doctorate from a foreign university.
In the '30s and the '40s, Dr. Sree was held up as a role model for girls aspiring to college education. At least in the '30s, the now defunct LS (Lower Secondary) was the limit for girls. SSLC, Intermediate, a graduate degree, and further studies followed in the later decades.
Dr. Sree's name gained popularity as she became a college teacher unlike some of her contemporaries who did not take up a career after graduation. When she was a student, girls of the time needed not just their parents' encouragement but more importantly, the imprimatur of their in-laws!
Dr. Sree Ramanujam, in her 90s now, lives in Malleswaram with her daughter and grandchildren. She has hardly been written about by any publication, including those devoting their columns exclusively to women. Her husband T. Ramanuja Iyengar, who had taught chemistry in the then Intermediate College, is no more. She was the first girl student in the University of Mysore to opt for the tough physics-mathematics stream for B.Sc.. Though other women had graduated in science from the university, they were students of natural sciences. Dr. Sree was the forerunner for the thousands of boys and girls who are today eagerly taking up the physics-chemistry-mathematics-biology combination at the pre-university level. Later in the early '30s, the university revamped the degree courses with three optional subjects, besides starting the honours course.
Dr. Sree was born into an affluent and educated family that had lived in a bungalow on North Public Square Road (later B.P. Wadia Road) in Basavangudi. Her father, S.Varada Iyengar, was a district medical officer and pathologist at Victoria Hospital. Her paternal grandfather, Venkatavarada Iyengar, was a judge in the Mysore Judicial Service. Her mother was influenced by the Gandhian movement and she and two of her women relatives attended the Karachi session of the Congress held in 1931.
As her father was in government service and was being transferred, Sree was educated in various places such as Humcha, a village in Shimoga district, and Kolar. She passed her SSLC from the Vanivilas Institute here, securing a gold medal in mathematics. After passing her entrance examination (this was prior to the introduction of the two-year intermediate course), she joined the Central College from where she passed her B.Sc. in 1929.
Old Mysore University records mention her name along with the boys who graduated in 1929 from Central College, Maharaja's College in Mysore, Medical College in Mysore, and the Engineering College here. The convocations were grand and elaborate affairs to which very few candidates were invited. The university, in its yearbooks, would mention all the names along with the roll of honour of candidates who had graduated since its inception.
For a girl to pass the B.Sc. course with a "PM major" was an achievement then. Readers will appreciate the fact if it is mentioned that since its founding in 1916 till 1928, only 25 women (as against 2,010 men) had graduated from Mysore University. Of them, only four had obtained the B.Sc degree.
The gender bias and suppression of women were blatant and the number of women B.Scs showed no appreciable increase even by 1940. (Their number totalled seven.) Incidentally, the first woman B.Sc. graduate from the university was Pushpamma Santappa, in 1924. Next came Devanayaki (1925), Rose Mary Samuels (1926), Rathnamma Huligeri (1927), Narasamma Ramaswamy (1928), Sree Ramanujam, Lakshmiammal Sivarama Iyer, and B.H. Annapurna Bai (1929), Grace Rathnavathy Pichamuthu (sister of the well-known geologist C.S. Pichamuthu) (1931), and Vanajakshi J. Perumal (1932).Sree went on to do her M.Sc. in Physics from Central College. During our interview, she recalled her days in the Department of Physics. Her first mention of gratitude was Dr. E.P. Metcalfe, Professor of Physics and Principal of Central College till 1929. He became the third Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mysore. (In 1937 he was to miss becoming the Director of the Indian Institute of Science after the forced exit of Sir C.V. Raman.) But it is Mrs. Metcalfe whom she remembers more. It was because of her initiative that a ladies' room was opened in the Central College with a woman attendant. Mrs. Metcalfe arranged for girl students to play tennis by allotting a separate court. However, the girls could play against only their teachers and not their fellow male college mates! "I loved tennis and played the game even in the United States," says Sree.
The other teachers she remembers are Rao Bahadur B. Venkateshachar who succeeded Metcalfe as professor, Prof. A.Venkata Rao Telang, Dr. S.Ramachandra Rao, Dr.L. Sibaiya, Prof. T.S.Subbaraya and Prof. C.K. Sundarachar. "It was encouragement all the way from my teachers and classmates, not to speak of my parents, husband and others."
Dr. Sree Ramanujam became a lecturer in physics at the Women's Intermediate College, and later at the Maharani's College (Bangalore) which was opened in 1939. In 1947, she was selected for a scholarship for higher studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Those days, there were very few Indian students in American universities or Indian families settled there. Prof. Sundarachar, who had studied at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, during 1939-41, had told her that accommodation would be available for foreign students at the international hostel. But by the time she landed at Berkeley, the hostel was full. She had to live with an American family.
With pride she said that one of the professors at the University was Robert Oppenheimer. The physicist had earlier led the Manhattan Project along with Enrico Fermi and others which produced the atomic bomb. Life at the university was hectic and though the Second World War had ended, there were fears of a third world war involving the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Moreover, war clouds were gathering over Korea. Foreign students were being advised to rush through their courses and return home. Though her scholarship permitted her a three-year stay, Sree was asked to complete her thesis for the doctorate before that period. She did it in 30 months. It was an experience for her to defend her thesis before a battery of seven professors, all international leaders in physics. She was awarded the Ph.D. in biophysics.
Returning to Bangalore in 1949, she became an assistant professor of physics at the Central College and held the post till 1954. Those days, the University of Mysore was niggardly in creating professorships. They did not exceed two in each department and the Physics Department already had two.
In 1954, Dr. Sree Ramanujam got a break when she was invited by the Government of Liberia in west Africa to take up the professorship of physics at the university in the capital Monrovia. Her husband too was given a teaching assignment. The vice-chancellor of the university, set up with United Nations assistance, was none other than Dr. B.L.Manjunath, professor of chemistry and Central College principal who was Mysore University Vice-Chancellor during 1950-53. Dr. Sree served in the country, established for slaves freed from the United States, for 11 years, having had the satisfaction of placing the department on a firm footing. She acknowledges the help and encouragement from the President of the republic, William Tubman. (He headed the government from 1944 to 1971, when he was toppled in a coup.)
Dr. Sree returned to Bangalore in 1965.
In her ripe old age, she does not talk much about herself. A few years ago, the Central College Old Boys' Association felicitated her and one of her younger sisters, Dr. Sunanda Narayan, who holds a doctorate in the rare field of wool technology. That was when Prof.T. Ramesan was heading the association. It is a pity that the highly informative souvenir brought out by the Central College in 1958 to commemorate its centenary made no mention of her. Unassuming in her ways, she never aspired for any position or awards after her return from Liberia. Dr. Sree, who was an icon for girl students and women dying to break loose from their oppressive surroundings in the Thirties and Forties, might have receded from public memory, but her own memory has not faded a wee bit.
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