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ANNA MANI (1918-2001)

Anna Modayil Mani was a physicist and meteorologist. She was born to a wealthy traditional Syrian Christian family of Travancore, the seventh of eight children. Her father was a civil engineer and landowner, as well as an agnostic, and his ideas influenced his young daughter.

From an early age Anna showed much promise. On her eighth birthday she refused the traditional gift of a pair of diamond earrings, opting instead for a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. By the age of twelve she had read all the books in the local library. As a teenager she witnessed the Vaikom agitation of 1925 where Dalits in the city of Vaikom agitated to be allowed to use the road adjacent to a temple. This strengthened her resolve to promote social justice in India, though she never joined any group. She was introduced to socialist politics in college, associated with left-leaning people and read socialist literature. Initially she wanted to study medicine, but later switched to physics and took an honours degree in 1939 from Madras University.

In 1940 she was awarded a scholarship to do research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and joined C.V. Raman’s team there. C.V. Raman was then embroiled in a controversy with Max Born and Kathleen Lonsdale on crystal dynamics, so she set to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. It was grueling work as the diamonds were so small, and Anna would spend long hours in the lab. There were other difficulties as well: Raman was intensely conservative and did not approve of any contact between men and women in his lab. Abha Sur, Anna’s biographer, recounts how Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory. Women were neither allowed to participate in formal discussion nor to talk informally with male colleagues. Anna recalled how he would mutter ‘Scandalous!’ every time a male and a female student walked together by his window, something he could see even while bending over a microscope. Anna developed a very hard carapace of cheerful indifference to this treatment, but she never shrank from speaking out about prejudice in her colleagues.

Her hard work in the lab paid off and between 1942 and 1945 she published five single-authored papers on diamond crystallography. However, in 1945 Madras University denied her a Ph.D. on the grounds that she did not have an M.Sc degree. They ignored the facts that Anna had graduated with honours in physics and chemistry, had won a scholarship for graduate studies at the Indian Institute of Science, and had published five single-authored papers. The same thing happened to her fellow researcher K. Sunanda Bai, who eventually became so discouraged that she committed suicide, cutting short a promising career in biochemistry. According to Anna Mani, Sunanda Bai’s last wish was to be granted the Ph.D. degree that she so rightfully deserved, posthumously. Officials at Madras did not fulfill her wish, ostensibly for bureaucratic reasons. Though Anna had accepted with grace the ostensible reasons Madras University had given for denying her a Ph.D. degree, she keenly felt the injustice of their decision in Sunanda Bai’s case. Her completed thesis, however, found an honoured place in the library of the IISc.

She then went to England on a scholarship. This was, however, for meteorological instrumentation, so she ended up working in this field as well. She returned in 1948 and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune. She continued to work over two and a half decades on meteorology in India, including atmospheric ozone, solar radiation, wind energy and international instrumentation standards. She also started a company to manufacture meteorological measuring instruments and gauges. She promoted the selection of Davos as the World Radiation Centre. She campaigned to have ozone research put at the forefront of the assessment of climate change. In 1967 she worked with the World Meteorological Organisation revising and updating international standards. In 1975 she acted as WMO adviser to Egypt on radiation research. She retired in 1976 and joined the Raman Research Insittute as visiting professor. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data in India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981). In 1987 she was awarded the K.R. Ramanathan Medal by the Indian National Science Academy.
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