Mary Mathew – The First Malayali Woman Engineer from Malabar : Joy Kallivayalil

The first Malayalee woman engineer from Kochi State, P.K. Thressia and the first woman engineer from Travancore State, Leela (George) Koshy. Both of them received their degrees in 1943.

Mary Mathew has the distinction of becoming the first Malayalee engineer from Malabar. Mary was born on 3 March 1927 in a conservative Syrian Catholic family as the eldest of six children of Col.P.A.Mathew and Theresa. Col.Mathew was an officer in the British Indian Army.

After her schooling in Providence High School, Calicut, she did her intermediate course in St.Agnes College, Mangalore.

Mary was determined to enter the engineering profession, but her parents thought engineering was a difficult choice for girls. They forced her to join a BSc. course in Mathematics. However, her persistence forced her parents to relent. She applied to the College of Engineering, Guindy, Madras, and secured admission for Electrical Engineering during 1945-46.

There were only two senior girl students, May George in Civil Engineering and Rajyalakshmi in Telecommunication Engineering at the time. There was no hostel for girls and Mary was lucky to get accommodation in a convent in Pudupet. She commuted to the college campus daily on a bicycle. She later recalled that the boys would often let out the air from the tires of the bicycle so that they could walk with the good-looking girl to the bicycle workshop.

Mary Mathew graduated in Electrical Engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy, madras in 1949. She joined the Madras State Electricity Board as a junior Engineer. She was the lone woman in the department. She thrived in the design of sub-stations and electricity lines. She was promoted as Assistant Engineer in charge of the generation and maintenance of the hydro powerhouses at Pykara, Papanasam, Mettur, and Moyar. Mary also set up several 33kv substations. She was also involved in the preparation of a master plan for the electricity distribution in Madras city and suburbs.

In 1964, Mary was sent on deputation to Coimbatore to establish the Government Polytechnic for Women.  She also taught Electrical Engineering and recruited her junior, Sulochana ( CEG 1962) to head the faculty of Civil Engineering. The polytechnic was inaugurated on the campus of the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore. She also started a diploma course in Commercial Practice in addition to the regular courses. Mary was instrumental in buying land for a new campus, designing and constructing the buildings. The GPCW moved to the new campus in 1969.

New courses in Costume Design and Dressmaking were added. In June 1969, a diploma course in Electronics and Communications was started. Mary was able to secure the services of Indira Premkumar (CEG1966) to head the department. Five girls were able to secure admission for the new course. The lady teachers also served as resident tutors and assistant administrators under the leadership of Mary Mathew.

Mary was a rigorous administrator and every activity in establishing the polytechnic and labs was executed under her watchful eye. She was also a strict disciplinarian. Lights had to be switched off at 10 pm and the inmates were responsible for the tidy upkeep of their rooms as well as the common areas. She would often make surprise visits after 10 pm. Any offender would be fined and the money would later be used for celebrations.

Tamil was the commonly spoken language, but Mary insisted that the students of commercial practice should speak English as she considered it necessary in their future careers.

The Principal kept a strict watch on the teachers also. She would personally tutor them whenever any complaints were received regarding any particular teacher. However, she treated her colleagues as her family and would often join them in celebrating their family events.

Though her mother tongue was Malayalam, Mary attended classes in Tamil, the official language, and passed the test with flying colours.

After eight years in Coimbatore, Mary was assigned to Madurai in 1972, to establish the Government Polytechnic, Madurai in its new buildings.

Mary returned to the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board in 1977 as Divisional Engineer. She was appointed director of Research. In due course, Mary was promoted as Chief Engineer, Operations. She had to travel all across Tamil Nadu often and she had no hesitation in sleeping in tents whenever the occasion arose. Mary Mathew retired in 1985 after a brilliant career of 34 years.

Mary had remained single, in her relentless pursuit for excellence. In her career, Mary straddled the world to technical operations and education with equal ease. She moved to Bangalore after retirement to be closer to her relatives and spent her time in prayer and reading. Mary Mathew passed away on 22 February 2014, at the age of 87.

( adapted from the book: Roots And Wings: Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering, Notion Press, 2018, by Shantha Mohan).

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