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She Was One of India’s Earliest Woman PhDs. Yet Few of Us Know Her Inspiring Story

Nagamani was only eight when she lost her father, Dr Shama Rao, a doctor in the British Army, to the side effects of mustard gas during World War I in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). He was one of the first Bengalureans to have served as a Captain in the British Army during the World War I.

Nagamani Kulkarni wore many hats.

While she was without the speck of a doubt a doting daughter, wife, mother and grandmother, this woman was also an accomplished scientist, chemistry professor, tennis player, artist, quilter, painter, cook, embroidery expert and perhaps one of the best great-grandmothers.

Born to doctor Shama Rao and his wife Thangamma on January 11, 1916, in Bengaluru, Nagamani was perhaps one of the first women from the city to receive a PhD in physical chemistry as early as 1943 during the British Raj.

nagamani kulkarni woman PhDs IISc
(L) Rare photograph of a young Nagamani Kulkarni. Source: Genie / (R) – A rare archival photograph of a Batch of Girl Students outside their hostel – the J Block @ IISc. Photo courtesy: The Archives and Publications Cell, IISc.

The first Indian woman to get a PhD in a scientific discipline in 1939 was Kamala Sohonie. Read about her here.

Nagamani was only eight when she lost her father, Dr Shama Rao, a doctor in the British Army, to the side effects of mustard gas during World War I in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). He was one of the first Bengalureans to have served as a Captain in the British Army during the World War I.

But that did not deter the young girl or her mother from continuing her education.

She was a math wizard and a gifted painter who stood out in Vani Vilas High School in Bengaluru. She continued her education at the Central College in Bengaluru before joining the prestigious Indian Institute of Science’s department of inorganic and physical chemistry.

Even as she was a top student, completing her MSc and later PhD at IISc, Nagamani continued to make her mark as a tennis champion and bridge player.

IISc scientist Sharath Ahuja writes in his tribute to her, that despite being a woman of many talents, Nagamani was told by her family to keep her achievements a secret, so that the chances of finding a suitable bridegroom would remain high.

But Nagamani, being the level-headed woman she was, refused to be at the mercy of fate or change her personality to find a husband.

It wasn’t long until the scientist met a fellow student, Bapu S Kulkarni, who was completing his PhD at IISc, fell in love and got married.

After the two received their PhDs, they moved to Hyderabad in 1944. Despite having a doctorate, Nagamani wasn’t able to work immediately as the last ruler of Hyderabad at the time had ruled that women could not work or seek employment there.

So it was a long wait of over four years for Nagamani to becoming a working woman until the Nizam was deposed and the state joined India in 1948.

She first joined the Osmania University as a reader and over the years moved on to chair the department of chemistry at the university.

When her husband died in March 1992, she moved to Brigham City to live with her son, Suresh. Even at that age, the scientist would often spend time playing bridge and meeting her Bunka embroidery friends at the Senior Center.

Some of her works like the hand-embroidered sarees and Bunka pictures were displayed at the Senior Center and Perry City Office.


Read more: Here’s How India’s First Woman Lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji Opened Law for Women in 1924!


When she died at the ripe old age of 96 in the US in 2012, this scientist’s departing words were from a Sanskrit verse from the Vedas “Sarve Janah Sukhino Bhavantu” meaning “May all the people in the world get happiness and peace.”

Nagamani Kulkarni, one among the early women at IISc, paved the way for many more women to pursue careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Though it is unfortunate that not much has been documented about her life, let us draw inspiration from the life of this unsung woman scientist and give us women and girls the support to chase their dreams no matter what.

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