Anna Modayil Mani was born the seventh of eight siblings on August 23, 1918 in the formerly princely state of Tranvancore (now called Kerala) in the southern part of India. Her father was a prosperous civil engineer who owned large cardamom estates. The family was a typical upper class household where the boys were groomed for professional careers while the girls were readied for marriage. Anna, however, had plans of her own. By the time she was twelve she had read almost all the books in English and Malayalam (the regional language) in the local library. On her eighth birthday, she declined her family’s customary gift of a pair of diamond earrings, choosing instead the Encyclopedia Britannica. Such was her passion for knowledge.
Born during a crucial moment in India’s history when the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi had adopted as its goal complete independence from the British, Anna Mani was deeply inspired by Indian nationalism. Although she did not join the nationalist movement she took to wearing khadi (handwoven cloth) and continued to wear khadi for the rest of her life. A sense of personal freedom also reinforced in her the desire to pursue her goals of higher education instead of marrying early like her sisters did.
Anna Mani enrolled for the honors program in physics at the Presidency College in Madras (now Chennai). After finishing college in 1940, she obtained a scholarship to conduct research in physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. She was accepted as a graduate student in Nobel Laureate CV Raman’s laboratory where she worked on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Anna Mani recorded and analyzed fluorescence, absorption and Raman Spectra in over thirty different diamonds. Her long and painstaking experiments saw her single handedly author five papers on these subjects, between 1942 and 1945. In August 1945, she submitted her PhD dissertation to the Madras University. However, she was never awarded a doctoral degree because the University claimed that she did not have a M. Sc. Degree. Till today, her doctoral thesis remains in the library of the Raman Research Institute. But the lack of a PhD degree made little difference to her scientific expertise for she was soon awarded a government scholarship for an internship in England where she specialized in meteorological instrumentation.
Following her scholarship in England, Anna Mani returned in Independent India in 1948 and joined the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Pune. Driven by the nationalist fervor she desired to make India self sufficient in designing and deploying weather instruments. She led a period of intense activity and inspired a team of Indian scientists and engineers to develop meteorological instruments in India. By 1953, she was promoted to be head of the division with 121 men working for her – an unusual situation in India then. Her association with the IMD spanned close to three decades and saw her publish papers on a range of topics including atmospheric ozone, international instrument comparisons and national standardization of meteorological instrumentation. She retired in 1976 as Deputy Director General of the IMD.
Anna Mani was a pioneer in developing an apparatus to measure ozone – the ozonesonde. It is to her credit that India became one of the few countries in the world to have its own ozonesonde. The World Meteorological Association (WMO) was quick to realize this contribution and made her a member of the International Ozone Commission. She later published the Handbook for Solar Radiation for India (in 1980) and Solar Radiation over India (in 1981), two volumes which have become standard reference guides for those engaged in solar thermal systems in India. She also envisioned a realistic potential for wind energy in the country and published Wind Energy Data for India (in 1983); today, India is one of the leaders in setting up wind farms across the country and part of the credit goes to Anna Mani. She was also one of the few scientists to bridge the academia-industry gap; she headed a small enterprise that manufactured instruments for measuring wind speed and solar energy.
Anna Mani was also passionate about nature – she loved trekking, going to the sea and enjoyed bird watching. She was very interested and involved in environmental issues though she never saw herself as an environmentalist. She held several academic distinctions. She was elected to the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in 1977 and served on its Council from 1982-84. She was also a Fellow/Member of the Indian Meteorological Society, Royal Meteorological Society, Institution of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers, International Solar Energy Society and many other international bodies. She was awarded the INSA K R Ramanathan Medal in 1987 for her research on atmospheric ozone extending more than 30 years.
Anna Mani’s is a success story which inspires both men and women in equal measure. She crossed the numerous social and physical barriers in her path while challenging gender stereotypes. During an interview she recalls how even slight errors in handling instruments or setting up experiments were seen by male colleagues as signs of female incompetence. Despite having worked with stalwarts like CV Raman during her graduate days, she had to overcome professional seclusion forced upon women scientists when they were denied access to scientific discussions with their male counterparts. She represents one of those few champions who stand at the confluence of science, nationalism and gender ideologies.
In 1994, Anna Mani suffered a stroke which rendered her immobile for the rest of her life. She passed away on 16 August 2001 in Thiruvananthapuram, a day after India’s Independence Day.
This post originally appeared in a collection of portraits of women scientists from all continents, Femmes savantes, Femme de science (“Learned Ladies, Women in Science”) edited by Florence Piron, published online by the Association of Science for the Common Good