Some of India’s most significant scientific breakthroughs are the result of years — and even decades — of work by visionaries. But these names are far less known than the contributions they made.
From saving countless lives to transforming healthcare and education, these extraordinary contributions have shaped a nation that is proud to call itself a pioneer of modern science today.
We look at 10 such scientists who remain obscure in the chapters of India’s science history, but have led revolutions that play a significant role in our lives to date:
1. Dr Nitya Anand
Dr Anand was an organic chemist and the brain behind Saheli, the world’s first non-steroidal contraceptive pill.
Giving women the freedom of choice, this pill is to be consumed only once a week and was a product of two decades of research led by Dr Nitya Anand at the Central Drugs Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow.
Dr Anand was also responsible for making CDRI a globally recognised centre for drug discovery. He advised the government on formulating drug policy and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012.
2. Ruchi Ram Sahni
Dr Sahni’s sharp prediction at IMD helped save many lives in Odisha during the False Point cyclone in 1885.
Born in undivided Punjab, he was a scientist and meteorologist who, at one point in time was IMD’s first — and only — Indian scientist.
Dr Sahni’s role in reducing the number of lives lost in the calamity was ignored by the British press that time, and came to light only when his memoir was published years later.
The scientist also co-founded the Punjab Science Institute and invented a technique to deliver lectures using slides.
3. Kamala Sohonie
She was the first Indian woman to get a PhD in a scientific discipline, and the first female student at IISc.
The story goes that she was at first refused admission in the institute on grounds of being a woman by professor C V Raman, but persisted till he allowed her in.
In 1936, Kamala submitted her research, completed her degree, and earned herself a research scholarship at Cambridge University. Next year, Raman opened the doors of IISc for female students. A silent revolution had been fought and won.
She also developed a protocol that prevented the curdling of milk, and was honoured with the Rashtrapati Award.
4. Kishori Mohan Bandyopadhyay
Born in Kolkata in 1877 to a family of educators, Bandyopadhyay had always been keen to explore the world of science. In his career, he played a very significant role in India’s fight against malaria.
Working as a lab assistant to Ronald Ross — who later received the Nobel Prize for his malaria research — Bandyopadhyay assisted in crucial practical research and real-time experiments.
This was the reason the duo was able to discover the role of the female Anopheles mosquito as a vector in the transmission of malaria to humans.
However, his contribution was not acknowledged, and after protest by notable Indians, he was awarded King Edward VII’s Gold Medal.
5. Anna Mani
Former deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department, she made notable contributions in the field of solar radiation, ozone and wind energy instrumentation.
Years before ‘alternative energy’ was the buzzword, she manufactured instruments that would measure wind speed and solar energy.
6. Nagamani Kulkarni
This unsung hero was one of India’s first women PHDs.But despite having a doctorate, Nagamani had to wait four years to work, as the Nizam had a rule that women couldn’t work in Hyderabad.
She went on to head the chemistry department at Osmania university. As one of the early women at IISc, she also paved the way for many more women to pursue careers in STEM.
7. Padma Shri Manas Bihari Verma
This aeronautical scientist was responsible for the development of Tejas, India’s first indigenous multi-role supersonic fighter aircraft.
He was also an educationist, and started the Mobile Science Lab (MSL), which takes science education to hinterlands of rural Bihar since 2010.
8. Dr Narinder Singh Kapany
Known as the ‘Father of Fibre Optics’, he never received the Nobel Prize for his work.It was his path-breaking research in the 1950s on fibre optics that paved the way for high-speed broadband internet, laser surgeries and endoscopy, among others.
Hailed as an “unsung hero” later in his career, he was recognised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as the inventor of fibre optics.
9. Dr Darshan Ranganathan
She was one of India’s most prolific bio-organic chemists, and won the Third World Academy of Sciences Award for her outstanding contributions to bio-organic chemistry.
She created a protocol for the autonomous reproduction of imidazole, an organic compound that is an important ingredient found in antifungal drugs and antibiotics.
10. Dr Raja Ramanna
This nuclear physicist played a significant role in India’s growth as a nuclear power.
Dr R Chidambaram, former chairman of the AEC, once recalled that Dr Ramanna had begun thinking about developing a nuclear explosion even before Dr Homi Bhabha’s death in 1966.
He also directed the nation’s nuclear programme and conducted its first nuclear test in Pokhran in 1974.
In fact, Saddam Hussein once wanted Dr Ramanna to stay in Iraq and lead its nuclear programme. But the scientist returned to India instead, and the incident still stands out as one that reflects India’s advancement as a prominent nuclear power — all thanks to Dr Ramanna.