The Incredible Story of Shyamala Gopalan- Kamala Harris’ Mother and Pioneering Breast Cancer Researcher

Syamala Gopalan Nurses stories Nursing News India

Newly-crowned USA Vice-President elect Kamala Harris’ pictures are breaking the internet and notably so since this Indian-American politician will now be occupying office in the highest circles of the country along with getting a chance to implement her progressive ideals at the same time. However, did you know that Harris has always been greatly influenced by her mother, Shyamala Gopalan or G. Shyamala? Her mother is credited for her pioneering work in isolation and characterization of progesterone receptor gene-stimulated advances for oncology and breast biology. She is mother to Kamala and political commentator and lawyer Maya Harris. The rapid rise of Harris towards the topmost rungs of the political ladder has been inspirational, to say the least. Gopalan has influenced her daughter’s politics and ideologies in more ways than one.

Gopalan was heavily involved in activism pertaining to civil rights during her time at the reputed UC Berkeley and this is how she actually met Donald Harris, the father of her children. Gopalan created a magnificent career for herself in breast cancer research along with tackling the no-less-important task of successfully raising two hugely independent and bright children.

Syamala Gopalan Nurses stories Nursing News India

Shyamala Gopalan’s early years- Discovering a spark of brightness

Shyamala Gopalan was born to P.V. Gopalan, the noted Indian civil servant, and Rajam, his wife. Her father and mother hailed from Thulasenthirapuram and Painganadu respectively in proximity to the previous Tanjore District’s Mannargudi. Her father started out as a stenographer, eventually rising to become a civil servant, shifting the family every few years between New Delhi, Madras (Chennai), Mumbai, and Kolkata. Shyamala and her siblings led interesting and culturally enriched lives, courtesy of the broad-minded outlook of their parents. She was a talented South Indian classical music singer, once winning a national competition when in her teens.

She earned her B.Sc degree in Home Science with flying colors at New Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, one of the most reputed women’s colleges in the country at the time and her father fortunately thought that the program did not quite live up to his daughter’s academic bent of mind and abilities. Her mother also backed him, expecting her children to follow careers in fields like engineering, law, or medicine. In the year 1958, a 19-year old Shyamala first applied for the master’s program in nutrition and endocrinology at UC (University of California) Berkeley and was eventually accepted. Her father and mother used a major chunk of their retirement savings for paying off her board and tuition throughout the first year of the course. Since they did not have a telephone connection at home, they communicated with their daughter via aerograms.

The rest, as they say, is history. Shyamala earned her Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley in the year 1964. Her dissertation was supervised by the likes of Richard L. Lyman and was named The isolation and purification of a trypsin inhibitor from whole wheat flour.

A stellar career- Shyamala’s incredible legacy

Shyamala Gopalan left behind a fabulous legacy as a cancer researcher. She started research work at the Department of Zoology and Cancer Research Lab, UC Berkeley. She also worked as breast cancer researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and University of Wisconsin as well, post earning her Ph.D. She was employed for 16 years at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research and McGill University Faculty of Medicine while also serving as a peer reviewer for the National Institute of Health.

Not many know that Gopalan was also a site visit member of the team for the Federal Advisory Committee while serving on the President’s Special Commission for Breast Cancer. She has also mentored innumerable students at her lab while working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory throughout her last researching decade. She is known for her rich legacy in advancing knowledge pertaining to hormones linked to breast cancer. She has worked extensively for advancing knowledge regarding isolation and characterization of progesterone receptor genes. This research was done on mice and transformed mainstream research on breast tissues and their hormonal responsiveness.

A roller coaster personal journey

In 1962, Shyamala was attending a meeting of the students group at Berkeley known as the Afro American Association where they would eventually give shape to the Black studies discipline while proposing the Kwanzaa holiday and setting up the Black Panther Party. At this meeting, she met Donald J. Harris, the graduate student in economics hailing from Jamaica. Harris was the speaker for the day at this event and subsequently became professor emeritus in economics at Stanford University. This led to a meeting of minds and enriching discussions which led to a whirlwind romance. In the year 1963, they got married without following the tradition of introducing Donald J. Harris to Gopalan’s parents earlier or having a marriage ceremony in the hometown. In the later part of the 1960s, Shyamala and Donald set off for Zambia which became newly independent, on the latter’s advisory assignment. They took their two daughters, Kamala (4/5 years then) and Maya (a couple of years younger) with them.

Shyamala divorced her husband in the 1970s and thereafter, she took her daughters multiple times to Chennai for visiting her parents. The children also visited the family of their father in Jamaica when they grew up. Shyamala lived life on her own independent terms while raising her two daughters all by herself for the greater part of her life while pursuing a successful career as well. Her fierce streak manifested itself for the benefit of many. Once, one of Kamala’s friends in school at Montreal, Wanda Kagan, talked about how her step-father molested her and she told Kamala Harris about this incident. Upon learning of the same, Shyamala insisted upon Kagan moving in with them for finishing her final high-school year while also helping her get ample support for living independently.

How her mother’s death shaped Kamala Harris’ defining philosophy

Along with her stellar career in cancer research and the rich legacy that she left behind, Shyamala Gopalan ultimately contributed towards the development of one of Kamala Harris’ defining political philosophies and ideologies, namely that of Medicare for all. Ironically, this was due to her death from colon cancer on the 11th of February, 2009. Instead of flowers, Gopalan had reportedly asked for donations to be made out to the Breast Cancer Action organization. In 2009, Kamala Harris carried her mother’s ashes to Chennai before scattering them in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Kamala Harris - Nursing News India
Kamala Harris

In her book The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala has narrated how her mother’s battle with cancer led to her mission of ensuring Medicare for everyone. In 2008, Kamala narrates how her mother called both sisters for lunch, at which she told them that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Gopalan fell sick prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act at a time when insurance companies could legally deny paying out coverage for any pre-existing medical conditions. Harris wrote how she thanked God that her mother possessed Medicare. As a result, ever since a federal district judge ruled that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional in Texas, Harris got thinking about how Medicare was essential for all.

Calling this a major catastrophe, Harris wrote how her mother’s death and battle with cancer motivated her to fight for Medicare rights for every American citizen in order to prevent the human toll and denial of proper medical care to a large majority of citizens. She talked of how back then almost 30 million people in the country still did not possess health insurance and how there were many with insurance but they still could not afford increasing healthcare costs. Harris was thus one of the first senators signing the Medicare for All Bill, advocating a system where positive outcomes are the target instead of higher profits. As per reports, this could save a whopping $5 trillion in costs of healthcare over a decade while saving innumerable lives at the same time.

Harris has also recounted in her book, how her mother was still in high spirits even after being admitted to hospital and fought till the end. She talks of how just two months after turning 70, Gopalan passed away, and one of the last questions that she asked the nurse was Are my daughters going to be O.K.? Gopalan kept her focus steady on being a protective mother to her children till the very end. Harris has categorically stated that while missing her mother each day, she carries her everywhere, drawing inspiration from the countless battles Gopalan fought, the values taught to her and her sister, and her commitment towards enhancing healthcare for everyone. Harris unequivocally stated that being Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ daughter was the biggest title/honor of all. Her fight for a superior healthcare system still continues in her mother’s name. In life and in death, Shyamala Gopalan remained an inspiration, a beacon of hope and optimism, a pioneering scientist and researcher, and of course, a brilliant mother to two equally brilliant children, one of whom holds the chance today to bring about a better world in so many different ways.


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