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The very prefix of “woman” that needs to be added before the word “scientist” when talking about women in science, is proof enough of the gendered nature of subject matter in our society. Despite having considerable amount of contribution in scientific developments, throughout the course of history, women are discouraged from participating in this field. Their knowledge and achievements in science are deliberately concealed in books, media and in our everyday lives, denying them their due credits.

Overcoming such deep entrenched prejudices, women have always transgressed these socially constructed, gendered boundaries and have claimed their spaces to share their knowledge. Bibha Chowdhuri (1913-1991), is one such physicist, whose exceptional research on elementary particle physics and cosmic rays, at the Bose Institute under the guidance of D. M. Bose and alongside more popular names like Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and M G K Menon, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai and the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad, constitutes of one of the most pioneering work in Indian science fraternity. She had also assisted the Nobel-winning physicist P.M.S. Blackett, who was an adviser to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in post independent India.

Despite having considerable amount of contribution in scientific developments, throughout the course of history, women are discouraged from participating in this field.

Not much has been written about her, except a brief life sketch called Jnan O Bijnan (2005), written by Ranatosh Chatterjee, which was published in a Bengali Magazine. More contemporary texts written on women scientists such as Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India (2008) published by Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, or Scientifically Yours – Selected Indian Women Scientists (2017) published by the Journal of Scientometric Research, failed to mention her name and her contributions in the field of physics.

Early Life and Education

Bibha Chowdhuri was born in 1913 in a zamindar family of Bhandarhati in the district of Hooghly in Bengal. Her father Banku Behari Chowdhuri was a doctor by profession. Her family was to a large extent influenced by the Brahmo doctrine which discarded multi-god Hindu beliefs, idolatry and Hindu rituals. The Brahmo Samaj was known for its movement which advocated social, political and religious reform and encouraged women’s education. She completed her school education from Bethune School in Kolkata, which was one of the oldest female schools in India.

Bibha Chowdhuri’s courage and conviction at a time when very few women were allowed access to public education, especially in spaces occupied mostly by men, motivated her to acquire a B.Sc. in Physics from Scottish Church College in Kolkata and an M.Sc. Degree in Physics from Calcutta University. She joined the Bose Institute as a research student with her supervisor D. M. Bose, from 1938 to 1942. Acquiring materials to continue high quality research became difficult during the war period, due to which D.M. Bose decided to discontinue the field of cosmic ray research. Bibha Chowdhuri left Bose Institute at this point and joined the cosmic ray research laboratory of P.M.S. Blackett at the University of Manchester in 1945, to pursue a Ph.D. degree. She joined P.M.S. Blackett’s team at a time when the when studies on Extensive Air Showers in cosmic rays were one of the most important investigations in particle physics.

Also read: Maharani Chakravorty: One Of India’s Earliest Molecular Biologists | #IndianWomenInHistory

Academic Work and Scholarship

Bibha Chowdhuri was the only female student in her M.Sc. in the physics department of Calcutta University.  Her name can usually be seen when discussions around the experimental discovery of mesotrons/mesons are called for. She is one of the first Indian woman working in the field of high energy particle physics. A local newspaper in Manchester called The Manchester Herald acknowledged her work and reported it under the title: Meet India’s New Woman Scientist – She has an eye for cosmic rays. She submitted her thesis in early 1949 and later she obtained her Ph.D. degree in 1952.

Their knowledge and achievements in science are deliberately concealed in books, media and in our everyday lives, denying them their due credits.

She was also the first female researcher to work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), in Bombay. While she was in TIFR, she attended the 2nd International Conference on Elementary Particles held in Pisa, Italy in 1955. She also had a brief stint as a visiting lecturer at the Physics Department of the University of Michigan. Bibha Chowdhuri left TIFR and joined Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad when Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was the Director. She became involved in detecting high energy muons associated with extensive air showers.

She was also a part of the proton decay experiment conducted in the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), under the supervision of M. G. K. Menon. She published several research papers in international journals during the long course of her career. However, despite her life-long contributions to research, she was not elected for any major fellowships or prizes. Her name also does not feature in anywhere in the writing on cosmic particle research done at KGF. This was a classic example of gender discrimination.

Later Life

After the completion of the Kolar Gold Mine experiment, she had a plan to set up a new experiment with Prof. Vikram A. Sarabhai at Mount Abu on radio frequency emissions associated with Extensive Air Showers. However, this project did not come to life due to the untimely demise of Sarabhai. She took a voluntary retirement and continued to work on High Energy Physics in Kolkata in collaboration with scientists of Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, University of Calcutta and Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. In 1983 she participated in a national conference in Amritsar, Punjab where prominent cosmic ray researchers were invited.  She died in her Broad Street residence on 2nd June, 1991.

Also read: B. Vijayalakshmi: The Physicist Who Fought Feudalistic Academia| #IndianWomenInHistory

References

  1. S. C. Roy and Dr. Rajinder Singh – Bibha Chowdhuri: An Unknown Indian Woman Scientist
  2. S. C. Roy and Rajinder Singh – Bibha Chowdhuri – Her Cosmic Ray Studies in Manchester
  3. The Hindu Business Line

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