Mary Mathew graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1949 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. She is described by those who were lucky enough to work with her as a perfectionist, straight shooter, and a highly disciplined technical leader, yet very compassionate. She inspired those who worked with her to do their best, and mentored and motivated them to excel. From an entry-level job of Junior Engineer right after graduation, she rose to the position of Chief Engineer, Operations, responsible for power stations in Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) before retiring in 1985. In between these positions in TNEB she was instrumental in setting up the Government Polytechnic for Women in Coimbatore as founder principal and also headed a similar institute in Madurai promoting technical education for women.
Mary was born on March 3, 1927, in a conservative Malayalee Syrian Catholic family. Her parents were Col. P.A Mathew, M.D. and Teresa. Her father was a high achiever and was one of the first Indian Officers in the ‘British Indian’ army. Mary was the oldest child among six children. Mary attended Providence Higher Secondary School in Calicut, Kerala and did her Intermediate education in St. Agnes College in Mangalore.
A bright and capable student, Mary decided she would become an engineer. Her parents were confounded by their daughter’s unorthodox choice of a field. Engineering was not a field of study girls chose in those days. They forced her to reconsider. Mary started an undergraduate degree program in Mathematics. However, she kept pushing to study engineering and finally the parents relented with a stern warning to succeed.
When asked why she wanted to be an engineer, Mary replied simply “I had a passion for it”.
Mary applied to CEG and was accepted to start the undergraduate program in Electrical Engineering in the academic year 1945-1946.
Since CEG did not have a dorm for women, she stayed in a convent dorm in Pudupet (part of Gopalapuram, Chennai) and commuted to the CEG campus on a bicycle.
Mary’s experience with her male classmates was mixed. Mary seemed to have said that she could not afford to take even a single day off since the boys in her class wouldn’t share their notes. However, they seemed to enjoy the company of a good looking girl and many times purposely let out the air in her bicycle so that they could walk with her to the bicycle repair shop.
Soon after graduating from CEG Mary joined the Madras State Electricity Board (which is now transformed into Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) ) as a Junior Engineer, the only woman in the entire department at that time. She thrived in an environment where her supervisors taught her design of substations and lines. She was promoted to Assistant Engineer responsible for generation and maintenance of Hydropower houses at Pykara, Papanasam, Mettur, and Moyar. In addition, she also set up many 33kv substations and contributed to the plan to improve electricity in Madras (as Chennai was called then) city and suburbs.
In 1964, Mary was deputed to create and run the Government Polytechnic for Women (GPCW) in Coimbatore. She arrived in Coimbatore in July of 1964 and got busy setting up the Polytechnic. She recruited Sulochana (CEG class of 1962) from TNEB to join her as faculty in Civil Engineering. The polytechnic was off and running on the campus of Government College of Technology (GCT), an engineering college in Coimbatore. In addition to running the Polytechnic, Mary also taught Electrical Engineering classes. She added Diploma in Commercial Practice to the Polytechnic’s offerings. As the student body grew, there was a need to find a new home for the polytechnic. A land was bought, and a new building was designed and built. Mary borrowed many of the design principles from the Chennai Women’s Polytechnic. In 1969 GPCW moved into its new home.
In addition to diplomas in Electrical and Civil engineering, the Polytechnic offered Commercial Practice and Costume design and dress making. In June 1969 Diploma in Electronics & Communication was added with the intake of 5 girls. Indira Premkumar (CEG Class of 1966) was recruited as faculty from Chennai Women’s Polytechnic to teach this specialization. Indira remembers Mary as a demanding, but a very fair boss. Indira & two other staff set up the Electronics Lab in two months, including wiring the work tables. In addition to teaching, they also served in various committees, acting as resident tutors in the student hostel, and being assistant administrators of the hostel under Mary’s leadership.
Mary was very rigorous in her administrative processes in order to make sure the new Polytechnic was set up properly. Every activity in establishing the Polytechnic and its labs such as getting quotations from vendors, evaluating comparative bids, making purchase recommendations, placing orders, testing the machines, and validating their use in practical exams were all carried out precisely by staff under the watchful eyes of Mary. While being a strict task mistress, Mary was also quick to praise each of the staff for a job well done.
Mary was a strict disciplinarian with regards to the running of the hostel as well. She had instituted policies such as hostel lights should be put off by 10 pm; common areas such as the dining, lounge, and individual student rooms should be clean and tidy. Indira remembers that Mary often paid surprise visits (on which Indira would accompany her in her capacity as student tutor) after 10 pm to make sure rules were followed. Anyone in violation was fined and the fine money was collected and used for celebrating special events. The Polytechnic students usually spoke their native languages (mainly Tamil), but Mary insisted that Commercial Practice students speak English since she considered this to be one of the requirements for a successful commerce career.
Hema Krishnaswamy, who was privileged to work with and learn from Mary remembers that Mary would often come into classrooms to see how the lectures were going. She recalled that once a group of students went to Mary and complained about a faculty’s teaching. Mary worked with the faculty, coached her, and asked her to conduct a mock class, and helped her to do better.
She treated her staff as if they were part of her family. She attended their weddings and family events.
Mary’s native language was Malayalam. But, the official language of the state where she worked was Tamil. To make sense of the office communications she had to learn Tamil, and pass a test. She attended classes at the Government College & took the necessary tests. It was a relief to put this behind.
In 1972, after running GPWC for eight years, Mary was deputed to the Government Polytechnic for Women, Madurai. Mary got the polytechnic established in its new buildings and ran it as well as she had done the Coimbatore Polytechnic.
She returned to TNEB in 1977 as Divisional Engineer and then became Director of Research. In her role running research, she very much enjoyed the aspect of interacting with researchers from all over India. In the book on Study of Failure of 6.6 kV Motors in Thermal Power Stations Mary is credited thus:
“The Central Board of Irrigation and Power is thankful to Miss Mary Mathew the then Director (Research), TNEB under whose guidance the studies have been carried out and the other officers who assisted her in carrying out exhaustive studies responsible for bringing out various aspects of study on failure of 6.6 kV motors used for auxiliaries.”
Eventually, she became the Chief Engineer, Operations. In this role, she was responsible for the power stations in Kundah, Erode and Tirunelveli (designated as hydro-circles). She also led the Protection and Communication circle in TNEB. Mary’s nephew Zacharias Antony (Zach) remembers that she recalled a memorable event during this period as detecting a gap in the structure of Mettur dam by a staff and averting a major disaster by plugging the gap.
As an operational head, Mary spent a lot of time in the field, sleeping in tents, and dealing with labor unions. Prema Thomas (CEG class of 1970) remembers Mary sharing with her the story of dealing with a very difficult situation involving a labor union representative by remaining silent throughout, listening, and diffusing the situation.
After 34 years of service, Mary retired from the TNEB in 1985.
Zach asked Molly (Mary’s nickname in the family) if she would choose to be an engineer again, and Mary’s answer was in character:
“It was a challenging career and I gained much from it. Of course, given another life, I will choose it again. I am sure that it will be still more interesting with all the advances in technology.”
Post Retirement and extended Family
Mary’s brothers followed different paths in their careers. One was an engineer, another a businessman, and yet another ran a plantation in Kerala. Her youngest brother studied management in the USA and went on to serve in several firms.
Mary remained single and her sister Teresa & family, as well as her brothers & their families, became her extended family. After retiring, Mary lived in Chennai for a short time before moving to Bangalore to be closer to her siblings and nephews.
After retiring, Mary lived in Chennai for a short time before moving to Bangalore to be closer to her siblings and nephews.
Mary’s nephews and nieces took turns taking care of Mary when she was ill. She remained mostly at home praying and reading books, rarely venturing out except to attend church and family events. She passed away on 22 February 2014, at the age of 87.
An outstanding technical Leader & educator of women
In her career, Mary straddled the world of technical operations and education with ease. In her work at TNEB, she exemplified the qualities of an ideal technical leader, taking on leadership roles in research and operations. In her position as a Principal of Women’s Polytechnic, she promoted technical education for women and also mentored and coached women to follow in her footsteps.
Mary demanded high standards from herself and from those who worked with her. She admired cleanliness and order in her surroundings and strived to find order in all her endeavors. She motivated her team by giving them praise when due. She was a caring leader, taking care of her staff and working with them to improve their capabilities. In what was then a rarity, she entered the men’s world of electrical operations and showed it can be led ably by a woman. The discipline she showed in being a demanding technical leader with a compassionate heart is truly inspirational for not just all women, but men as well.
This article would not have been possible without a lot of input from my fellow alumnae Sulochana (Civil 1962), Indira Premkumar (EE 1966), Prema Thomas (ECE 1970), as well as Hema Krishnaswamy, a past faculty in Coimbatore Women’s Polytechnic. Hema also helped in making sure I got the career transition dates right. All these women engineers worked with Mary, and their enthusiasm in bringing her life story to the reader is what made this article possible.
Indira put me in touch with Mary’s extended family. Her nephews Clifford Antony and Zacharias Antony were very helpful in providing me the details of their aunt’s life. Zach had written an article (never published) which provided me with direct quotes from his aunt. He also gave me all the great early pictures of Mary you see in this post. I am very grateful to him for providing much of the details of Mary’s life story.
This is the sixth write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae.
My goal is simply to 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.