The 1900s ushered great change in Indian history. India would break free of the shackles of colonialism under the British Raj, gaining independence in 1947. Much would be required in the years to follow to battle and recondition Indians from the trauma of colonialism. Embedded in this trauma was a struggle for identity, especially for women, who sought to establish their position within a society that predetermined their futures via cultural and gender-based stereotypes.
Despite the tall order of obstacles and the slim odds, one individual would break away from these customs and become a renowned figure in the science industry. Knowledge would be her tool, and with it, she would inspire many other females to seek greater heights in pursuit of their dreams. Her name was Anna Modayil Mani and this was her world.
Hailing from a Syrian Christian family in Travancore—a formerly prince state of Southern India and most of modern-day Kerala—Anna was born on August 23, 1918, the seventh of eight siblings. Anna’s father was a civil engineer, and her family represented the typical upper-class professional household where the males were groomed toward prestigious careers while the females were prepared for marital life and its responsibilities. The female literacy rate at that time was less than one percent, and less than a thousand women were enrolled in colleges.
Against her family’s customs, Anna spent her formative years indulging in her one true love: books. On her eighth birthday, she would decline the customary gift of a set of diamond earrings, seeking instead a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. In a life marked by her trailblazing actions and success against cultural and societal norms, this would prove to be Anna’s first. By then, she had already read all the books in Malayalam at her public library, and by the time she was 12, all the books in English.
Books widened Anna’s worldview, enriching her mind with new ideas and strengthening her deep sense of social justice. Persistent in her pursuit of higher studies, she enrolled in the honors physics program at the Presidency College in Chennai (then Madras) and graduated with a BSc degree in 1939. A year after the completion of her college education, Anna would successfully land a scholarship to pursue research in physics at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) under the supervision of C.V. Raman.
Building a foundation
A recognized authority at the institute, C.V. Raman was well-known in the scientific community for his work in the field of light scattering. His discovery of the changes in wavelength and frequency of deflected light waves that have passed through a transparent medium, also known as the Raman effect, earned him the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics. Despite his public championing of women’s education, Raman was in reality highly intolerant of female students in his lab at the IISc. After much insistence on her own part, Anna would be accepted into Raman’s laboratory as a graduate student. Anna’s research at the IISc would lay the foundation for greater opportunities in her future. At the time of her entry, Raman’s lab focused on the study of diamonds in an ongoing scientific battle with Max Born on crystal dynamics and Kathleen Lonsdale on the structure of diamonds. Anna spent many hours painstakingly recording and analyzing the spectroscopic and polarization properties of more than 30 different diamonds. The weak luminescence of the diamonds, alongside observations at liquid air temperatures, meant long exposure times of up to 20 hours to record spectroscopic data on photographic plates. Anna would quite often work through the night at Raman’s laboratory. Her efforts led to the publication of five papers on the luminescence of diamonds and rubies between 1942 and 1945. She submitted this research for her PhD dissertation to Madras University, which at that time offered formal degrees for research at the IISc.
However, Madras University declined Anna’s eligibility on the grounds of her not having an MSc degree. The lack of a PhD did not waver Anna, who would be awarded a government scholarship for a research internship in England. Arriving at Imperial College London on a troopship in 1945, Anna Mani began the initial steps to cement her future legacy within the scientific community and the greater public. While she intended to pursue research in physics, the lack of an internship would alter her course toward studies on meteorological instrumentation. She studied several weather instruments and their corresponding calibration and standardization procedures while making a few of her own. Armed with this knowledge, Anna returned to an independent India in 1948 and joined the India Meteorological Department (IMD) at Pune. She began working under the supervision of Dr. S.P. Venkiteshwaran who headed the instruments division at IMD.
In pre-independence India, even simple meteorological instruments such as thermometers and barometers were imported. Post-independence and amidst an uplifting atmosphere of freedom and innovation, Venkiteshwaran wanted to internalize the process of making scientific instruments in India. His workshop would become Anna’s very own testing grounds. In the years to follow, she would take charge of Venkiteshwaran’s workshop guiding the manufacturing and calibration of a variety of instruments from rain gauges, evaporimeters, thermometers, anemometers, wind vanes, thermographs, hydrographs, and many more.
Aspiring even further, Anna Mani would standardize the drawings of 100 weather-related instruments while setting up monitoring stations across India to record solar radiation and harness solar energy, an untapped technology in India at that time. Her efforts were in line with her dreams to make India self-sufficient in weather instrumentation as fast as possible. This was a daunting task as skilled labor to operate sophisticated weather machines was not a luxury at that time, but Anna would find her way, inspiring the 121 men who worked with her to put their best into a collective dream for the country’s future.
In 1963, Anna began her own personal work in measuring atmospheric ozone and later set up a meteorological observatory at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. She went on to publish many papers on the monitoring of atmospheric ozone, international instrument comparisons, and national standardization, and in the process earned the moniker, “The weather woman of India.”
A legacy to remember
After a career that spanned nearly 30 years, Anna retired as the deputy director-general of the India Meteorological Department in 1976. She remained busy even after, returning to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years, and later set up a millimeter-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She would go on to publish two books, Handbook of Solar Radiation Data for India and Solar Radiation Over India in 1980 and 1982, respectively, that continue to serve as standard reference guides for solar engineers.
Her life characterized the trailblazer she had become through her contributions to her country. As a member of many scholarly academies—Indian National Science Academy (INSA), American Meteorological Society, the International Solar Energy Society, etc.—Anna continued to contribute to the scientific community into the later stages of her life. She received the INSA K.R. Ramanathan medal in 1987. Recognizing the potential of wind energy for India, she organized wind measurements throughout the year from more than 700 sites across the country using state-of-art equipment. India’s current growth as an emerging leader in renewable energy technologies surrounding wind and solar energy certainly owes its share of credit to Anna Mani’s accomplishments.
Beyond science, Anna also became a role model for young women in India. In an era where female Indian physicists were a rarity, she would overcome various obstacles, countless moments of discrimination, and victim politics to pursue and accomplish her dreams. In doing so, Anna overthrew coercive gender stereotypes that negatively portrayed and limited women’s potential while differentiating them from men on the intellectual stage. Anna never married and remained ever passionate about her first love, books. A stroke in 1994 left Anna immobilized for the rest of her life. She passed away on August 16, 2001, leaving behind a rich legacy of a life that transcended the restrictive environment of her own culture, and a journey that, in many ways, epitomized the destination.