Subodh Chandra Mahalanobis may not be a name known to many, but the former Cardiff academic was a pioneer of his time. At the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (which later became Cardiff University), he broke new ground not only in the scientific world but also through his work in championing Indian self-determination.
Born in Kolkata in 1868, Mahalanobis developed a passion for scientific inquiry at an early age, enrolling at Calcutta Medical School in 1883. From there he made his way to Britain, studying at Edinburgh University, before journeying south in 1897 to Cardiff, becoming Assistant Lecturer and Demonstrator in physiology. This was, according to the Cardiff Times in 1897, the first instance of an Indian being appointed examiner for a science degree in a British university.
In fact, this was an era of important firsts for Cardiff University. Just over a decade after Mahalanobis worked in Cardiff, one of the architects of the suffragette movement, Millicent Mackenzie, joined the University, becoming the first female professor at a fully chartered UK University.
Mahalanobis himself had been politically active in the field of Indian rights and nationalism. He was a member of the Indian National Congress and president of the Edinburgh Indian association. He was also a founding member of the Edinburgh Ethical Society, regularly debating topics such as the rights and education of Indians.
A modern researcher at Edinburgh University believes that Mahalanobis may have struggled to advance his career in Britain. This may have prompted his return to India, where he took up a professorship at Kolkata in 1900. There, he established physiology as an independent academic subject within the country: his work had a profound impact on Indian education. In 1934, he became the founding president of the Physiological Society of India – an institution which continues today. Despite Mahalanobis’ achievements and distinction, very little has been written about him, and there are few acknowledgements of his ground-breaking contributions to University life in Edinburgh or Cardiff.
Inspired by Subodh Chandra Mahalanobis’ story? Tell us about other notable names linked to Cardiff and Cardiff University: we want your suggestions for the historical figures that deserve to be celebrated in building names, artwork and portraiture on campus.