Defence Science: Remembering Dr. DS Kothari on his Birth Anniversary, 6 July

‘Dr Daulat Singh Kothari, a theoretical physicist and Dean of the Faculty of Science of Delhi University, was appointed the first Scientific Adviser in July 1948, at the age of 42. He formed Defence Science Organisation by hand-picking scientists from the various universities in India who were proficient in aeronautics, electronics, chemistry, mathematics, nutrition, physics, psychology to start research work in ballistics, electronics, chemistry related to explosives, paints and corrosion, food preservation and nutrition, psychological fitness profile for selection of Service personnel, battlefield stress and physical fatigue. He made the Services conscious of the role a scientist could play in the solution of defence problems. Dr Kothari aimed to build a boundaryless learning organisation stripped of hierarchical trappings and with two-way communication between him and his scientists. The basic science laboratory raised by Dr Kothari provided the nucleus for the formation of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.’

–DRDO Website

The first Boss is the most formative influence on one’s career, work ethics and leadership style. And if he/she is a good boss, then they are almost Gods to impressionable young minds.

Dr. DS Kothari was my father’s first Boss. And was God to him.

Each line in the DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) write-up resonates with what I have heard about Dr. Kothari from my father.

DRDO was officialy established in 1958, but many constituent labs came into being before that. My father applied and was interviewed for the junior-most position in the Defence Science hierarchy around 1953. And who should be the head of the panel but Dr. DS! He sat through days and days of interviews in the midst of all his responsibilities as Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri. He saw this as his most important responsibility—hand-picking young scientists of promise from across the country to build a unique institution and an ambitious one for a newly independent India.   

The first problem he set my father and a few of that cohort was to work out the ideal thickness of rotis for high-altitude troops. The parameters to be optimized for a given weight of atta were time for the cook to roll out the roti, cooking time, and fuel consumption. And of course the rotis had to be edible! I think the realization that science could be brought to bear on such everyday problems was a lesson that scientists of that generation imbibed and made a way of life.

In 1955, PM Pandit Nehru set the scientists the task of studying the consequences of nuclear, thermonuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Dr. DS had the major responsibility of bringing out the report, along with Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Khanolkar. A small group of young Defence scientists—my father among them–was tasked to assist these stalwarts. Due to various reasons, it was Dr. Kothari who took up most of the burden of the work.

The 10-12 months were among the most hectic and most memorable ones of my father’s career. There was very little information on this subject in the public domain at that time, and India did not belong to any elite clubs which could get access to any classified information. Yet, in less than a year, the group brought out a data-rich 212-page report ‘Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects’ (subsequently published by the Publications Division). The book had a foreword by Pandit Nehru and was a seminal report at the time, not only in India but internationally.

The powers that be were also gracious in acknowledging the contribution not only of the leaders but also the young scientists.

But what is part of family history is something that captures Dr. Kothari’s essence. Apparently, at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door of my parents’ house. When they opened the door, there was Dr. DS himself! He had wanted to urgently discuss a point related to the book. In the days before home-telephones, he got his office to dig out my parents’ address, and rather than send someone to fetch my father, decided to come himself and save time.

My mother, till her last days, recalled this incident with not only awe, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed. A young girl newly arrived from Tamilnadu, with a very cranky baby on her hip. and no Hindi and only a smattering of English, she was confronted with having to entertain God himself! I think the sum total of furniture in the tiny house consisted of a few Godrej chairs, a study table and a cot. I don’t know if Dr. DS partook of anything, but I surely hope he asked for coffee rather than tea, because there would have been no tea leaves in a good South Indian household of that time. Nor would my mother have known how to brew a cup of tea. And steel tumblers and dawaras were the only serving utensils.

But Dr. DS, by family accounts was completely oblivious of all this. He came, made himself completely at home on the Godrej chair, stayed for almost an hour discussing what he had come to discuss, and then with blessings to my brother and a warm smile to my mother, was off.

All in a day’s work for him. But for us, family history for generations!

Dr DS Kothari: Scientist of international renown who worked with Dr. P Blackett in Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, under the guidance of Lord Ernst Rutherford, the Father of Nuclear physics, and contributed immensely to the fields of statistical thermodynamics and Theory of White Dwarf Stars. Steering-hand of DRDO and the founder of many of the labs in the system. Played a key role in setting up UGC and NCERT, and was Chair of India’s first Education Commission.


In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, a physicist, who worked with DRDO for almost half a century. And my brother, Dr. N. Prabhakar, an aeronautical engineer, who also spent his entire career with the same organization, and was awarded a Padma Shri. They knew no other life, and were immensely proud to be a part of DRDO.

Never Say Die: A Tribute to Dr. V. Shanta

A Tribute on Republic Day to Builders of our Institutions of Excellence

The story of Dr. V. Shanta (1927-2021), is the story of The Cancer Institute, Adyar. For her, the institute and its mission were everything. She admitted that work was her only interest,  that she was not social, had few friends, and did not keep in touch with those she had! So tied up was her life to the Institute that when she felt unwell a few days before her death, she said to those around her: “If I die, sprinkle my ashes all over the institute. I don’t want to leave this hospital,”

She joined the Institute in 1955, just a year after it was founded by another remarkable lady, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr. Shanta served there till she passed away last week at the age of 93, still seeing patients and managing the institute as Chairperson. Dr. Shanta, who was related to two of India’s Noble Laurates (Dr. CV Raman and Dr. S Chandrashekar), was a Magsaysay Award recipient (2005) and a Padma Vibhushan (2015).

Her Magsaysay citation mentions: “In an era when specialised medical care in India has become highly commercialised, Dr Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, ‘Service to all’. Its services are free or subsidised for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients […] 87-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery and is still on call twenty-four hours a day.”

Adyar Cancer Institute was only the second comprehensive cancer centre in India. It pioneered many areas of cancer care, becoming the first in the country to set up a Nuclear Medical Oncology Department; to set up a Medical Physics Department; to set up a Pediatric Oncology Department; to start a Medical Oncology Unit; carry out the country’s first rural cancer survey; create the first super-specialty course in oncology in India; set up the first cancer registry..and many, many more.

While it stays at the cutting edge of medical developments related to cancer, the core of the Institute is its Mission to provide quality care for every patient, irrespective of their ability to pay. In fact, of the 535 beds in the hospital, only 40% are fully-paid beds; 20% patients pay a nominal amount; 40% beds are free, where not only do patients not pay for treatment, but boarding and lodging is free too–living up to its Mission ‘To provide state of art to any cancer patient irrespective of his or her economic status.’

This was the lifework of Dr. Shanta, along with Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, son of the founder Dr. Muthulakshmi.

May the legacy of Dr. Muthulakshmi and Dr. Shanta continue to live on, and may their dream of a world free of suffering and pain come true!


In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, one of the country’s early Medical Physicists, who had the privilege of professional interactions with Dr. Shanta.

Father Valles, whom Mamata wrote about a few weeks ago in ‘The Mathematical Priest’ has been bestowed posthumously with the Padma Shri. A fitting tribute indeed.