May George, who became the Chief Engineer of Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB) after getting her bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering exemplifies what you can do with an engineering education. She made her mark in her world in so many ways. She was instrumental in establishing the first women’s polytechnic in Chennai to promote technical education among girls. She built houses for the poor and battered women. When no one else would, she took in HIV infected prostitutes (who were originally from Tamil Nadu) from the state of Maharashtra and provided them housing and job training. She dedicated her “retired” life to service through the Zonta International’s Madras Chapter, and Inner Wheel Club of Madras South. The People’s Technocrat as she was eulogized, is a true inspiration to all people with technical education who want to change the world.
May was born in Chennai, on May 1, 1925, to Dr. Joseph Charles & Joanna Thivy. Joseph Charles was originally from Malaysia. May’s maternal grandfather, L.D. Swamikannu Pillai, who was a politician, historian, linguist, astronomer, and administrator, was a firm and passionate believer in women’s education. This translated into May’s aunts being highly educated and having very successful careers. One of her aunts was a principal of Scindia School, Gwalior. Another aunt, Margaret Peters, was an educator and was Tamil Nadu’s first Superintendent of Schools. Joanna, May’s mother was a pianist.
May’s father passed away when she was 13, and her aunt Margaret took May under her wings. May wanted to study engineering, while her family wanted her to become a doctor. However, with the firm backing from her aunt, who paid her entrance fee, May entered College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) in 1944.
May specialized in Civil Engineering. An article titled “Have the Will – And there’s always a way” in the fortnightly Eve’s Touch (Dec 25, 1997 – Jan 9, 1998 publication) quotes May:
“It was tough. I did not receive any special consideration because I was a girl. Not that I expected any. I took on all the heavy practical work like anyone else. The course held me in thrall and I enjoyed it so much that all difficulties went unnoticed”.
When May joined CEG, there was no accommodation for women, since no woman was expected to be part of the student body. The school administration was not about to let a couple of women live among hundreds of male students. May followed her seniors Leelamma and Tressia and joined a private hostel in the predominantly Christian area called Little Mount (Chinnamalai). Prema (Charles) Thomas (class of 1970), who knew May well, understood that May used to travel to school daily by bicycle, and had to cross the Adyar River by boat.
May participated in many campus activities, including playing a role in a French drama production.
It is here in CEG that she met her future husband, C.V. George. He was one year senior to May, but due to illness, had to skip attending college for almost one year, and became May’s classmate. The marriage would come much later after their graduation.
An Illustrious Career in Civil Engineering and Women’s Education
After graduating, May started her career in the City Improvement Trust, which was formed in 1947, and later became the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB). She was their first technical officer and was instrumental in setting up the organization, and its charter. She was a hands-on supervisor who performed land and social surveys in an effort to improve the slums and was a contributor to re-housing schemes with designing, planning, and construction of buildings (source: Eves’ Touch article).
In 1960, May had six months of practical training in housing in Paris, France.
During her career as a civil engineer, she built many high rise buildings, shopping centers, community centers in several areas of Chennai including Ayyanavaram, Perambur, CIT Nagar, Chintadripet, and Manali.
Housing for the Poor
Her training in Paris influenced the circular housing she built for the poor in an area called “Padi Eri” in Chennai. The middle of the circle housed a bio-generation plant, the energy from which was used for cooking and lighting the houses.
Radial Plots at Padi Eri – courtesy of Mr. Muthiah, article in The Hindu
Low-Cost Techniques in Building
Throughout her career, May was interested in research on lowering the cost of construction with innovative designs and techniques. These low-cost techniques in building included augured piling, zip system of prefabrication with concrete panels, and composite slabs with light weight celcrete fill. She developed Zipbloc housing with hollow concrete blocks. The Auroville Earth Institute’s online library catalog lists May’s publications on the Zipbloc system. Her tenure at Housing Board resulted in many of these techniques and designs being used to build low-cost housing for the poor. These buildings have withstood the test of times and can be found even today in Chennai.
In 1963, May was deputed to help build and launch the first women’s polytechnic college in Tamil Nadu. Now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women, the Women’s Polytechnic was one of the first of its kind in 1963 offering diplomas in three years after high school education. It is now an ISO 9001:2000 certified college, offering many areas of study, including Civil Engineering, Garment Technology, Modern Office Practice, Electronics and Communication Engineering, Instrumentation and Control Engineering, Cosmetology and Computer Engineering
May started this institute from the ground up. She built the syllabus, hired staff, and procured lab equipment. When land was allocated for the polytechnic to be on its own, she designed the infrastructure and started the institute. The move from the old location to the new facility was completed in one day, thanks to the efficient planning and execution under May.
The Eve’s Choice article quotes May:
“It was creative and satisfying work. I designed the classrooms, labs, hostel buildings and the furniture, I planned the hostel rooms to house four students and each had a bed and cupboard as well as a work table and drawing board to herself”.
May was principal of this Polytechnic until 1969. She then returned to the Housing Board to continue her work as a builder, right in time for planning Periyar Building, which she completed in two years.
May eventually became the Chief Engineer of TNHB. Many land developments in small and medium towns in the Tamil Nadu state benefitted from her leadership. May retired in 1983 at the pinnacle of her career.
In her capacity as an expert on construction, May served on many committees and belonged to several organizations. The list of such services is quite long, and here are some of them:
Under Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project (TNUDP)/ Municipal Urban Development Fund (MUDF) assisted local organizations in funding, design and implementation activities
- Assistance to Institute of Techno Economic Studies in a World Bank Study project
- Panel member for the formulation of National Building Code of India
- Member of board of studies for housing in School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi
- Member of advisory committee for the building centers under Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board
- Life Member of Indian Concrete Institute & member of its governing council for three years
- Member of technical subcommittee on Low-Cost Housing in Kerala
May presented several papers throughout her career, and even after her retirement. Some notable ones are:
- Paper on Low-Cost Infrastructure with Radial Plots, presented at UN Workshop. This won an award.
- Keynote lecture on “Energy requirements in human settlements” at a workshop in Bangkok.
- “Environmental issues affecting women with special reference to Housing, Utilities, and Services” at a UN workshop.
Later Personal Life
May met her future husband in CEG. After graduating from CEG, C.V. George worked for a few years in Garlick & Co and then started Gears India Pvt. Ltd. Their marriage was not without obstacles. May was from a prominent Catholic family, while George was a Jacobite. Getting married in the Chennai church was not acceptable to C.V. George’s father. After waiting for a few years, they got married in Bombay on January 4th, 1953.
May’s two children each studied Commerce and Architecture. Her daughter Achamma followed her mother’s footsteps by getting a degree in Architecture from School of Architecture & Planning in Chennai and retired from a very successful career in the US.
As May rejoined Tamil Nadu Housing Board after her deputation as Principal of Women’s Polytechnic, she was struck with cancer. She had to undergo hysterectomy and cobalt and radium therapy, but as soon as her treatment was over she was back at work.
Soon after May’s retirement, C.V. George passed away and May took over as director of Gears India.
In her husband’s memory, May founded CVG Shelter trust to promote low-cost housing. The trust educates and trains communities to build their own low-cost housing, trains masons in low-cost building techniques, and also runs a factory to manufacture the hollow blocks.
May passed away on January 25, 2014.
Social Activism and Services in Later Years
May was engaged in social activism throughout her life. She made it her mission to use her technical abilities to help the poor. In the 1980’s she was instrumental in setting up an integrated shelter project for women in crisis called Aashraya, under the auspices of Joint Action Council for Women. It offers legal help, counseling, vocational training, and short stay shelter.
Father Francis Schlooz (1912-1998) was a Salesian missionary from Venlo, the Netherlands. He dedicated his life for the service of the poorest of the poor. When he was building housing for lepers in Vyasarpadi, May got involved in the project and helped build the houses. May’s daughter remembers asking her mother about working with lepers, and May didn’t seem to have any concerns. To May, the lepers’ needs were more important than worrying about implications for herself.
May was a founding member of Zonta International’s local chapter and Area Director. Zonta’s goals of service to the community, advancing the status of women, promoting understanding through the gathering of business and professional women, spreading respect for human rights, and ethical standards very much appealed to May and she took them to heart.
In 1991 as part of Zonta International Service Committee, May led the Zonta Resource Center in Madras (Chennai) in starting a literacy program.
In 1991, a number of women sex workers, many with HIV, were rescued from Mumbai’s red light district and needed to be rehabilitated. They were not welcome anywhere. Leveraging her membership in the Zonta International, May set up the Zonta House to take these women in. She asked Prema (Charles) Thomas who was principal at the Women’s Polytechnic at that time to prepare a report of possible job opportunities for these women in the electronics industry, and many became gainfully employed. It appears that this project is now completed.
May’s views on services and her qualifications are clearly articulated in the nomination for Zonta International Board directorship. May served as a Director of Zonta International subsequent to this nomination.
May was an active member of Rotary Club South and the associated Madras South Inner Wheel Club. She participated in many of its activities, including designing the school that was part of the Cowl Bazaar village near Chennai airport when it was adopted by the rotary club.
Tributes to May
The tribute posted on the website of The Inner Wheel Club of Madras South- District 323 is a glowing testimony to the impact the “grand old lady” had throughout her life:
“The first woman chief engineer of the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (she retired in 1983), 81 year-old May George has always bucked convention. Hailed as ‘a people’s technocrat’ for her low-cost housing designs, she defied contractors and threw in her lot on the side of the poor.”
Mylapore Times glorified her in the obituary thus:
“Very much her own person who had her say in the board room and with building contractors, May once said that she learnt some good lessons when she was Head of the city-based Govt. Polytechnic on the need for skills training.”
“There passed away last week, little noticed, yet another path breaker in Madras. May George was the State’s first woman to be given the designation ‘Chief Engineer’ and I am not sure whether there has been anyone since. It was a few months ago that we last met and at 88 she was sprightly as ever, looking forward to attending the release of the third volume of Madras/Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India. She had contributed the chapter on ‘Housing’ which appeared in the second volume.”
The Servant Leader
May had tremendous empathy for those who were less fortunate. Her regular visits to the Zonta House made the women of the house feel she was family. Her capacity for compassion was boundless. It came to her naturally. The many projects she executed for the poor, and her foresight in developing low-cost designs and housing are proofs of what she accomplished.
She believed in the growth of women as equal partners in life. Her leadership in establishing the Women’s Polytechnic and promoting women’s education was commendable.
She was tenacious. Throughout her career, as a straight-shooting woman fighting corruption she had to endure countless roadblocks. The roadblocks did not stop her, but made her more determined to carry on what she believed in. She was able to persuade those around her to see the benefits in what she proposed. Her decision-making skills and ability to plan and execute projects were exceptional. So was her capacity for hard work.
She was a leader ahead of her times.
May’s daughter Achamma who lives in the US was kind enough to accept my call and talk to me about her mother. Getting the firsthand account of May from her was priceless. She also provided me with the picture of her parents for this post.
May’s daughter-in-law Pearly Verghese George was kind enough to provide the Eve’s Choice article as well as some of the personal information.
Prema Thomas, retired Principal of Women’s Polytechnic in Chennai, and later Ettayapuram, provided her perspective on May George, the educator. She was instrumental in putting me in touch with Ms. Saroja Sundaramurthy, who knew May for a long time as a friend and mentor.
Kate Trusk Edrinn, Senior Communications Coordinator, Zonta International & Zonta International Foundation was kind enough to find me the material related to May’s involvement in the Zonta International, and with enormous patience, scanned and provided the documents which strengthened the narrative on May’s service to the community.
Ms. Saroja Sundaramurthy, who retired from Women’s Polytechnic as Mathematics Professor was fortunate to work with May when the Women’s Polytechnic was established, and also served as warden of the women’s hostel. She contacted May’s daughter-in-law to get the personal information as well as provided me with information on May’s career.
Mr. Muthiah, the Chennai historian, was kind enough to correspond with me and provided the picture of the building May designed.
This is the third write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG women.
My goal is simple – encourage more girls to study engineering & science, enter the work force and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of the world. I am hoping stories of the CEG women will inspire many to do so.
I will be writing more such posts here, and then collect them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to 1960s please contact me to help make these posts complete.
This article has been updated on June 23, 2017 to include material in support of May’s work in Zonta International.