Had it not been for the painstaking efforts of two physicists, the story of Bibha Chowdhuri would have probably been lost in the pages of history.
‘A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhuri’ is a book by Dr Rajinder Singh, a noted science historian at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, and Suprakash C Roy, a former professor of Physics at the Bose Institute in Kolkata. It was recently released by Shaker Verlag, a German publishing house.
Born in 1913, Bibha was supposedly India’s first woman researcher. Yet, neither does the name of this gifted physicist surface in any of the repositories on Indian women in science, nor is she mentioned even once amongst various lists of women pioneers in the history of Indian science. She also did not win any national award or receive a fellowship from a renowned scientific society during her lifetime.
However, in 1949, she was selected by none other than Homi J Bhabha to join the newly established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, as a researcher.
Many of her research works were published by journals such as Nature and Proceedings of the Physical Society of London, while her doctoral research work was going on at the laboratory of Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate, in the UK.
It was to bring the “story of courage and determination of a lady born more than a hundred years ago …for our younger generations to emulate,” that drove both Singh and Roy to travel through historical records from almost a century ago, and present the forgotten legacy of a woman physicist from India, to the world.
Besides her work and research contributions, very little is known about Bibha, and her personal life. Even the authors could only unearth limited information during their quest.
One of six siblings from a well-read zamindar family in Hooghly district of an undivided Bengal, Bibha was distantly related to the family of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose.
Known to have lived a relatively quiet life, she was deeply committed to physics and research to the extent that almost all of her time was spent within the confines of her laboratory. Neither Bibha nor any of her siblings ever married.
After obtaining her MSc in Physics from the Calcutta University in 1936, where she was the sole woman in the batch, Bibha joined the Bose Institute and dived straight into the world of research.
But it wasn’t an easy journey. In 1943, even though she had jointly published three consecutive papers on ‘mesons’ with Debendra Mohan Bose, the nephew of Sir Bose, the latter initially wasn’t too keen about accepting a woman researcher.
Sadly, their discovery of mesons could not be followed up through further investigation owing to “non-availability of more sensitive emulsion plates during the war years.” Seven years later, CF Powell, an English physicist, made the discovery using the same method and was awarded the Nobel for the same. He even acknowledged the duo for their pioneering contribution to his research.
In the meantime, Bibha went on to work under Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett in his ‘cosmic ray laboratory’ for her PhD thesis in 1945.
It was a time when extensive studies and investigations were being conducted by the world over, and Blackett would later go on to win the Nobel for his work in the same area.
Shortly after, Bibha returned to India and joined the TIFR. After working there for eight years, she moved on to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad.
Deeply interested in the Kolar Gold Field experiment, she had approached and discussed her future research plans with Vikram Sarabhai, who was the Director of PRL at the time. Unfortunately, she had to bid goodbye to these plans after the untimely demise of Sarabhai, as the concerned authorities did not allow her to continue her research.
It is quite tragic to note how Bibha had to face rejection at two critical junctures of her career; in areas that would later be taken up and bequeathed with awards and recognition. This also sheds light on the extent of discrimination that early women researchers must have faced and the barriers they would have broken in the largely gender-skewed world of science.
“Women are terrified of Physics — that is the trouble. It is a tragedy that we have so few women physicists today… I can count the women physicists I know, both in India and England, on the fingers of one hand. At school, scientifically-inclined girls choose Chemistry; perhaps because a really sound grasp of Higher Mathematics is one essential of any physicist’s equipment,” Bibha had once said in an interview to The Manchester Herald during her research days.
Following this incident, Bibha opted for voluntary retirement and headed to Kolkata, where she worked on high energy physics. She also worked as an active researcher with the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science.
Until she passed away in 1991, she kept on publishing her findings like the tireless researcher she had always been.
Despite having worked with almost all the premier science institutions in India, Bibha Chowdhuri died a relatively obscure death in Kolkata, unsung and unheralded for her extraordinary contributions to the field of physics and research.
Thanks to Dr Singh and Roy’s efforts to bring information about Bibha to the fore, this brilliant Indian physicist is finally getting the recognition she never received during her lifetime and that too by a German publishing house. We hope that this propels the Indian government to recognise Bibha Chowdhuri and honour her legacy.
‘A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhuri’ by Dr Rajinder Singh and Suprakash C Roy is available on Amazon and can be purchased online, here.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)