Press "Enter" to skip to content

Women and Science (Part – 1)

By Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee

Introduction: Science is a study of nature and the behaviour of natural phenomena. It is a knowledge based on facts learnt through observations and performing experiments. The quest starts with systematically gathering information and amassing evidence in support of the hypotheses that can be tested and finally made into laws that govern the natural phenomena. Therefore, science is an objective search for truth based on logic. Science promotes rationality which helps in eradicating the curse of superstition and dogmas from the human society. There is no doubt that scientific spirit needs to be cultivated in every member of any civilised society in order to make the world a better place to live in. Although science knows no boundaries based on caste, creed, religion or gender, yet from time immemorial, there has been little participation of women in science, not only in our country but worldwide.

There are many reasons for this; social norms, societal structures, organizational patterns, relationship between workplace and home front, all have contributed to the reason for exclusion of women from higher education in general and science discipline in particular. Gender bias in higher education has been a great deterrent. Women were allowed much later into University education. The age old universities in the West had kept their gates shut for female students, even after the renaissance. In Imperial India the Universities of Calcutta and Bombay started admitting women from 1877 -78 and 1883 respectively. Hence change in societal mores and institutional structures were needed in order to promote participation of women in education and science. 

This article will try to trace the history of science as a discipline and review participation of women in scientific studies, in the backdrop of the world scenario as well as in India. Although men who have laid down milestones in scientific discoveries far outnumber their female counterparts, yet there are a number of women who have inspired their future generations. This is also a tribute to these trail blazers.

History of Science: India perhaps has the longest tradition of Philosophical studies. Other than these philosophical works, there are other religious compendiums, works of state craft and economic theories by Kautilya, literature, dramatics, and volumes on medicine and astronomy. However, there are very few that can be called purely scientific work that lay down the laws of nature based on objective principles and logic. Since ancient times, education has been patronised by religious bodies.  In India there were the “ashrams” of the sages, the “sanghas” or monasteries of the Buddhist monks. Buddha’s teachings were perhaps more secular in the sense they encouraged more on living a life on this world, inspired by equality, justice and compassion. But still there is very little evidence of scientific search in its truest sense. Although Ayurveda, the medical science, was well developed in ancient India, yet after the caste system became rigid during the middle of the first millennium common era, hands-on experimentation became limited, thus rendering scientific studies in its truest sense impossible.

There is evidence of women in ancient India enjoying freedom of education irrespective of caste. But the training imparted was as per ones capability. However, for majority of women this was limited to primary education or training at the basic level. Women scholars, though limited in number, were not uncommon. Philosophers like Gargi, Maitryee, Atreyee and Sulabha left behind their unparalleled scholarship. Lilavati, also known as Khana, was a legendary astronomer and Bhanumati was an ace mathematician. The Buddhists and Jainas encouraged women’s education. However, the study of science as a secular discipline had not yet been developed.

One can find religious texts, literature and liturgy in various forms and languages the world over. In all other ancient civilisations, the priestly classes were the sole custodians of education. It was not much different in the classical or the medieval world.

In ancient Greece, several scientific minds tried to kindle the fire of scientific enquiry, of whom Pythagorus, Archemedes need special mention for their secular inspirations. In India Arya Bhatta the great mathematician during the Gupta Empire (476-550 AD) and few others excelled in scientific studies of the planets or Astronomy. However, participation of women remained limited, although not completely absent. Merit Ptah practiced medicine in ancient Egypt around 2700-2500 BC [1]. Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 CE) was an eminent mathematician but unfortunately died at the hands of an irate Christian mob.[1,2]

Perhaps the Arab world in the early Islamic period practiced some form of secular learning which were soon lost during the Crusades.

However, such higher levels of studies were restricted to very few and participation of women was even less, barring a few exceptions like the cosmologist Abbess Hildegard von Bingen who wrote on the natural world as well as cause and cures of illness [1,2]. The common men led a more humble existence in learning their trade. There were guilds of the tradesmen who trained their internees in their trades, which were more hands-on training other than scientific experimentations. They perfected their products more through trials and not assisted technologies developed by scientific studies.

After Christianity spread across Europe and parts of Asia, the Church remained the sole custodian of education. Any secular study that contradicted the established beliefs was severely condemned. Galileo Galili (1564-1642), the father of modern physics, was regarded as a heretic by the Catholic Church and kept under house arrest where he died from fever and heart palpitations.

Women’s Role in Scientific Studies: The women were denied of formal education even in the Western civilisation, their instructions too were limited. History records a few accomplished women in the Universities, but they were more exceptions than the rule. Ms. Bettisia Gozzadini  was a Law Graduate from Bologna University, Italy, in 1237. At the beginning of the fervent period of the Italian Renaissance in the fourteenth century, several women were admitted for higher education. Dorotea Bucca and Novella d’Andrea, both were Law graduates of the Bologna University in the fourteenth century. Luisa de Medrano (Phylosophy), Isabella Losa (Theology), Francisca de Lebrija (Rhetorics) & Beatriz Galindo (Latin & teaches Queen), Spain, were products of the sixteenth century Renascent Europe. However, none studied science, which was yet to emerge as a discipline of study, distinct from philosophy or natural philosophy [2-4]. There were few men who practiced science prior to Galileo, with the exception of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The artists like Leonardo and Michael Angelo practiced anatomy, a scientific study, but it was done in secret. Galileo was the first who promoted modern scientific studies by working in observational astronomy, applied science and technology.

India by this time had lost much of its scientific temper of the ancient era [5-7]. The old Vedic schools of studies had stagnated under the sole proprietorship of a few. The technologies used were being jealously guarded by the guilds and artisans. The scientific applications brought to India in the medieval times became closely guarded secrets of their custodians. Knowledge could not percolate to the masses nor could it expand by regular practice or discourse.

Women’s education in medieval India was restricted to few members of the elitist and aristocratic families who were taught at home. Although there were few schools for women in different parts of Muslim India, and the Royal ladies like Noor Jehan, Mumtaz Mahal, Jehanara, Zebunnissa, Zeenat-un-Nissa etc were highly accomplished. Bengal in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries saw a number of women scholars like Hati Vidyalankar, Hatu Vidyalankar, Madhabi, Chandrabati, Priyambada, Anandamayee. There were Rava, Roha, Madhabi, Anulakshmi, Sasiprava in the South. However, majority of women were uneducated as early marriage, “Purdah” and various social taboos came in the way of female education. So women’s participation in science was absent.

However, health care was an area where women had some presence; not as qualified professionals but as quacks and especially in midwifery.

India became exposed to modern science with the coming of the British when few Universities were established for imparting higher education to the natives from the middle of nineteenth century. The first Medical College was started in Calcutta, Bengal, in the year 1835, followed by Madras Medical College. Gradually other medical colleges were started in other provinces like the Medical College in Bombay named after the Governor Sir Robert Grant, in 1845. In 1854 the Agra Medical School was opened which was preceded by the Ecole de Medicine de Pondicherry established by the French in their colony in 1823.  But all these Medical Schools and Colleges catered exclusively to the male students. Madras Medical College was the first to open its doors to women.

In India the earliest participation of women in modern science was in the field of medicine. It took more than three decades for women to leave their marks in other branches of scientific studies. This article will narrate the stories of these remarkable women, both in the world and in India, who have charted a course for their posterity.


  1. Women in Science by Georgina Ferry,
  2. Women in Science: Historical Perspectives by Londa Schiebinger,
  3. History and Philosophy of Women in Science: A Review Essay by Londa Schiebinger, Vol. 12, No. 2, Reconstructing the Academy (Winter, 1987), pp. 305-332 (28 pages), Published By: The University of Chicago Press,
  4. Ten Amazing Women in Science History You Really should Know About by Alexander Mcnamara, 17th May, 2019,
  5. History of Science and Technology in the Indian Subcontinent; Wikipedia the Free Encyclopaedia
  6. History of Sciences in Ancient and Medieval India by S. N. S. Nature 192, 27 (1961)
  7. Glimpses of science and technology in ancient India by B.V. Subbarayappa, Endeavour, Vol 6, Issue 4, 1982, Pp177-182

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!