Engineer of the week No.76: Mrs. Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha BEng, MIEE (27 August 1919-12 October 1979)
On the centenary of her birth we remember India’s first female electrical engineering professional.
Mrs. Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was India’s first female to become a professional engineer. Born in Chennai (formerly Madras) in 1919, she would follow her father, Pappu Subba Rao, into his profession of electrical engineering. She was fortunate to have such a father, since she found herself as a widow with a daughter at the age of only 22 and he supported her wish to complete her secondary education and go to study engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) where he was a professor. This was against all traditions of what widows should do and of course was a totally unique choice of career for an Indian woman at that time, although 2 other women did join the college to study civil engineering while she was there. Lalitha graduated in electrical engineering in 1943, but there was a further, final, requirement for the degree: practical training. Lalitha completed her one year apprenticeship in Jamalpur Railway Workshop, which was a major repair and overhaul facility.
She then took her first job: as an assistant engineer at the Central Standards Organization of India, in Simla. This enabled her to live with her brother’s family who helped by looking after her young daughter. In 1946 she went to work for her father, assisting him with his research and patents but in 1948 made her final move, to the company for which she would work for the rest of her career: Associated Electrical Industries (AEI). With AEI she became a design engineer specialising in power transmission equipment, including protective gear, substation and generator design. The most significant contract on which she worked was theBhakra Nangal Dam, but she then worked more on contract engineering, as an intermediary between the equipment manufacturers in England and the local installation and servicing engineers, which often required field visits. She continued to work in the same office of AEI, in Kolkota (Calcutta) later taken over by General Electric Company (GEC). In 1953 the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London elected her to be an associate member, promoted to full member in 1966. She retired after a 30 year career and died in 1979.
Her career has been an important role model not only within her own extended family, most of whom are engineers, but also to women engineers in India more generally. A later pioneer, Professor Shantha Mohan, has provided most of the information for this profile, in her 2018 book Roots and Wings, Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering, which also includes the biographies of Lalitha’s co-students at CEG, P.K. Thressia and Leelamma George.