Shyamala Gopalan: Who Was Kamala Harris’ Late Mother?

Kamala Harris addresses an audience.
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Shyamala Gopalan is the mother of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris. The biomedical scientist was born in India before moving to the United States at the age of 19 to study at the University of California, Berkeley. There she met a fellow graduate student, Donald J. Harris, who she would marry in 1963 and have two daughters with, Kamala and Maya.

She would play a major role in supporting the ambition of her children, with the California senator describing her as “the reason for everything,” according to a report by The Quint. During her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Harris dedicated time to pay tribute to her mother while accepting the vice presidential nomination, as covered by The New York Times.

“My mother taught me that service to others gives life purpose and meaning. And oh, how I wish she were here tonight but I know she’s looking down on me from above. I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman—all of five feet tall—who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California. On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States of America.”

When she passed away due to complications from colon cancer in 2009, Gopalan left behind not only a legacy of her successful children but also a career that led to advances in breast biology and oncology.

Gopalan Was A Strong Advocate For Civil Rights

Gopalan was born on April 7, 1938, in Madras, British India, a city now known as Chennai in the independent country, as reported by Town & Country. While studying at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi, she would be accepted into a masters program in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. She left for the United States in 1958, remaining close with her family despite the distance by regularly writing letters. She would graduate from the university with a Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley in 1964.

She was active in the civil rights movement in Berkeley, and during a protest would meet Donald J. Harris, a fellow doctorate student at the university who was born in Jamaica. Their passion for activism played an important role in their relationship, even after marrying in 1963 and becoming parents. The vice presidential candidate referenced the impact her parents’ ideals had on her during her speech.

“That’s how they met—as students, in the streets of Oakland, marching and shouting for this thing called justice, in a struggle that continues to this day. And I was part of it. My parents would bring me to protests—strapped tightly in my stroller,” she said.

Gopalan and her husband would split in the early 1970s, when Kamala was 7. She continued to campaign for causes of racial equality throughout her life and professional career, often mentoring students of color and providing counseling services for African American women fighting breast cancer.

Gopalan Was An Accomplished Scientist

Gopalan remained at UC Berkeley following her graduation, becoming a breast cancer researcher. Her research was highly influential in her field, with her obituary describing it as leading to advances in the understanding of the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer.

“The world of women affected by breast cancer changed for the better because of [Gopalan’s] presence in it,” the obituary would read.

Her research would bring Gopalan around the world. She would conduct research and teach at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, as well as in France and Italy. She received tenure at McGill University in Montreal, relocating with her children to Canada. Kamala would live in the city from the age of 12 through her high school graduation.

As a teacher, she was dedicated to her students. She became a mentor to many of them, typically those who were of color or the first in their families to pursue careers in science, and her assistance extended beyond the classroom.

“Whether helping a student negotiate the UC bureaucracy, find an affordable apartment, or enjoy a home cooked meal, Shyamala was there,” described her obituary.