P.K. Thressia was one of the three women in the first batch of women students to graduate from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). She would go on to become the first lady Chief Engineer in Kerala’s Public Works Department (PWD). She was an outstanding student at CEG, and she carried on this excellence to her engineering career that started in 1944 and culminated in her becoming a Chief Engineer in the state of Kerala in 1971. During her time in office she was well known for her ability to lead projects delivered on time with good quality and for the honesty and integrity she brought to everything she did.
P.K. Thressia was born on March 12, 1924, one of six surviving children to Kakkappan Paniculam and Kunchalichy (See photograph below). She was the second child in the family. She had one older sister, Mary, and four younger siblings – Baby, Lily, Rosy and Jose. She had several younger siblings who did not survive. Thressia’s father was an agriculturist from Edaithiruthi in Madras Presidency (currently part of Trichur District). They belonged to the Syrian Catholic faith and were devout Christians.
Thressia was an excellent student and graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Kattoor, where her father Kakkappan was the manager. He was very much interested in seeing Thressia achieve her full potential and wanted to see her get an engineering degree. The only engineering college in Kerala at that time did not admit women, so Thressia applied for admission into CEG, and started her Civil Engineering education there.
Thressia was one of the three women students of her batch. The other two were A. Lalitha and Leelamma (George) Koshie. Thressia continued to shine in academics at CEG, The years of her engineering education was compressed to three and half years because of the Second World War. She and her classmate Leelamma had to stay off-campus (see Leelamma’s story) and commute to the CEG every day to attend classes. Not much else is known about her years in CEG.
History Making Career: First Woman Chief Engineer in Kerala
Upon graduation from CEG, Thressia joined the Public Works Commission of the Kingdom of Cochin under the British rule as Section Officer. Soon she was promoted to Assistant Construction Engineer for the TB Sanatorium, Mulakunnathukavu. In 1956, her accomplishments led to her becoming Executive Engineer, and she was relocated to Ernakulam. She served in this capacity for nine years. In 1966, she was promoted to Superintending Engineer of Kozhikode Roads and Buildings.
In 1971, she was promoted to Chief Engineer in Kerala PWD. According to Kerala’s premier newspaper Malayala Manorama’s article felicitating her promotion:
“Kerala, the state which appointed Smt. Anna Chandy 33 years ago as India’s first woman judicial officer, has again created history today by appointing P K Thressia (47) as the country’s first woman chief engineer. The cabinet today decided to appoint Thressia as the Chief Engineer of Irrigation in place of Shri. A Haridas, who is currently on leave. Thressia is currently the Superintending Engineer of Kozhikode Roads and Buildings.”
The article quoted Thressia:
“I started working at a time when it was rare to find women in the Services. However, I have never had to regret the fact that I am a woman” says the illustrious woman chief engineer when contacted for felicitations at Kozhikode as she shared with us memories of her work life. “I was in office for only about three months. However, by then I understood that an engineer’s life is not as difficult as many women think”, she added.
In becoming Kerala’s Chief Engineer in PWD, Thressia also earned the distinction of becoming the first woman in all of Asia to serve as the chief engineer of a state public works department.
Thressia served as Chief Engineer in the Roads Buildings department for eight years. During this time, every year, there were about 35 new bridges commissioned. Many projects to build roads, as well as hospitals and schools, were completed. One of these was the women and children’s hospital associated with Kozhikode Medical College. Construction of six civil stations (district headquarters) was started at Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad, Ernakulam, and Idukki during this time.
Thressia pioneered the first trial stretch of rubberized bitumen road in Kerala. She served as a member of the Specification & Standards Committee of the Indian Road Congress (See insert below.) and took an active part in the conferences.
After serving as an engineer in the Kerala PWD for 34 years, Thressia retired in 1979.
She settled down in Ernakulam after retirement and was one of the founder consultants of a company called Taj Engineers.
Thressia lost her father in August 1946, two years after completing her university studies. After this loss, her mother Kunchalichy single-handedly took care of the family.
Thressia never married. You could say she was wedded to her career, but she enjoyed traveling and learning about different cultures.
She also enjoyed spending time with her siblings, and her sisters’ children. Ojus, her elder sister Mary’s son, along with Col. N.D. Winny (Retd), the son-in-law of her younger sister Baby, collected and shared the details of Thressia’s extended family for this article. Only two of Thressia’s siblings had children. Mary’s older son Ojus completed his graduate degree from Imperial College, London, and worked in the petrochemical, aero-engine, automobile, embedded, and renewable energy fields and is now retired. His brother Thaejus is a retired professor and is a consultant in the field of anesthesia. Baby‘s daughter Anna and son Thomas had both graduated from college and worked in the fields of education and marketing.
Ojus looks back upon Thressia fondly as a “guiding beacon” to the youngsters in the family. The niece and nephews looked up to her for inspiration.
Thressia lived only for a couple of years after her retirement. In 1981, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery was performed in Boston, USA, after which she returned to Ernakulam. Unfortunately, her condition became worse, and she had to be admitted to St John’s Medical College Hospital, in Bangalore. She was in a coma for about a month and finally passed away on November 18, 1981. She was buried in Edathiruthy along with her parents and some of her siblings.
A Life Dedicated to Quality Work
Thressia lived her life excelling at her craft. The images of her on scaffoldings in her white saree, inspecting the quality of the constructions under her watch, were legendary. Even after retirement, she was called upon to extend her service. For every woman who faces a lot of difficulties and roadblocks to career advancement, Thressia stands as an example of what you can achieve with dedication.
Thressia’s nephew Ojus Job was kind enough to reach out to me upon hearing about the project to chronicle the lives of pioneering women alumnae of CEG. He answered my questions patiently, collected many facts and photographs (aided by Col. Winny) and sent them to me. Without his input, this story would have been only half-told.
Jose Panachipuram, Associate Editor of Malayala Manorama, and winner of Kerala Sahithya Academy Award in 2005 took my cold call requesting for any published articles on Thressia and dug up the articles that formed the part of this post related to her working life, without which there was no story to be told.
Ramesh Varma, an editor of technical books at Orient Blackswan, India, and a good friend of one of my nieces, was very generous of his time and translated the newspaper articles that were in the Malayalam language to English. This post couldn’t have happened without this critical help.
The Hindu article by the historian S. Muthiah was the reason why Ojus was able to get in touch with me. I am very grateful for the exposure.
This is the fourth 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 workforce 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.