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Shyamala Gopalan
Shyamala Gopalan Harris died 2009.jpg
Born December 7, 1938
Died February 11, 2009(2009-02-11) (aged 70)
Other names Gopalan Shyamala, G. Shyamala
Known for Progesterone receptor biology and applications to breast cancer Mother of Vice President Kamala Harris
(m. 1963; div. 1971)
Parent(s) P. V. Gopalan (father)
Rajam Gopalan (mother)
Scientific career
Thesis The isolation and purification of a trypsin inhibitor from whole wheat flour (1964)
Doctoral advisor Richard L. Lyman

Shyamala Gopalan (professionally, Gopalan Shyamala or G. Shyamala; December 7, 1938 – February 11, 2009) was an American biomedical scientist born in British India, whose work in isolating and characterizing the progesterone receptor gene stimulated advances in breast biology and oncology.

She was the mother of Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States; and Maya Harris, a lawyer and political commentator.

Early life and education

Shyamala was the daughter of an Indian civil servant, P. V. Gopalan and his wife, Rajam Gopalan. They came from agrarian villages close to each other near Mannargudi, in Tamil Nadu state in South India. Her father was from Thulasendrapuram and Rajam was from Painganadu. Gopalan began his professional life as a stenographer and later joined the Imperial Secretariat Service and then the Central Secretariat Service where he rose through the ranks, he moved the family every few years between Madras (now Chennai), New Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), and Calcutta (now Kolkata). According to The Los Angeles Times, "Gopalan was a Tamil Brahmin, part of a privileged elite in Hinduism’s ancient caste hierarchy". He and Rajam had an arranged marriage, but according to Shyamala's brother, Balachandran, their parents were broad-minded in raising the children, all of whom led somewhat unconventional lives. A gifted singer of Carnatic music, Shyamala won a national competition in it as a teenager.

Shyamala studied for a BSc in Home Science at Lady Irwin College, a leading women's college in India. Her father thought the subject—which taught skills considered helpful in homemaking—was a mismatch for her abilities; her mother expected the children to seek careers in medicine, engineering, or the law. In 1958, aged 19, Shyamala unexpectedly applied to a master's program in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, and was accepted. Her parents used some of their retirement savings to pay her tuition and board during the first year. Not having a phone line at home, they communicated with her after her arrival in the US by aerogram. She earned a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley in 1964. Shyamala's dissertation, which was supervised by Richard L. Lyman, was titled The isolation and purification of a trypsin inhibitor from whole wheat flour.


Shyamala conducted research in UC Berkeley's Department of Zoology and Cancer Research Lab. She worked as a breast cancer researcher at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Wisconsin. She worked for 16 years at Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research and McGill University Faculty of Medicine. She served as a peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health and as a site visit team member for the Federal Advisory Committee. She also served on the President's Special Commission on Breast Cancer. She mentored dozens of students in her lab. For her last decade of research, Shyamala worked in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


Shyamala's research led to advancements in the knowledge of hormones pertaining to breast cancer. Her work in the isolation and characterization of the progesterone receptor gene in mice changed research on the hormone-responsiveness of breast tissue.

Personal life

In the fall of 1962, at a meeting of the Afro American Association—a students' group at Berkeley whose members would go on to give structure to the discipline of Black studies, propose the holiday of Kwanzaa, and help establish the Black Panther Party—Shyamala met a graduate student in economics from Jamaica, Donald J. Harris, who was that day's speaker. According to Donald Harris, who is now an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University, “We talked then, continued to talk at a subsequent meeting, and at another, and another." In 1963 they were married without following conventions of introducing Harris to Shyamala's parents beforehand or having the ceremony in her hometown in India. In the later 1960s, Donald and Shyamala took their daughters, Kamala, then four or five years old, and Maya, two years younger, to newly independent Zambia, where Shyamala's father, Gopalan, was on an advisory assignment. After Shyamala had divorced Donald in the early 1970s, she took her daughters several times to India to visit her parents in Chennai to which they had retired.

The children also visited their father's family in Jamaica as they grew up.

Wanda Kagan, one of Kamala's high school friends, in Montreal, described how when she told Kamala her step-father was molesting her, Shyamala insisted she move in with them, to complete her final year of high school. Kagan said that Shyamala helped her navigate the system, to get the support she needed to live independent of her family.


Shyamala died of colon cancer in Oakland on February 11, 2009. In lieu of flowers, she requested that donations be made to the organization Breast Cancer Action. Later in 2009, her daughter Kamala Harris carried her ashes to Chennai on the southeastern coast of peninsular India and scattered them in the Indian Ocean waters.

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