A Life with Plants
Janaki Ammal was an eminent Indian botanist, who is often regarded as the first female botanist of India. However, she is not as famous in India as she ought to have been. There is not much news on Janaki Ammal in India’s mainstream media.
Among the many achievements in science of Janaki Ammal biography of her should give special emphasis to her work with the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore in developing a sweeter hybrid of sugarcane plant that facilitated India to reduce its dependence on Indonesian sugar imports.
One can find very few scientists in India who can match the caliber of Janaki Ammal. Biography of Janaki Ammal should give adequate emphasis to her studies on sugarcane and eggplant, which are among her most famous areas of works. If one were to ask what is the profession of Janaki Ammal, it would be apt to say that she was a botanist and an academic.
About Janaki Ammal
She was born in 4th November 1897, in Tellicherry, in the Madras Presidency of British India. Now in the independent India Tellicherry is named as Thalassery, and it is a municipality on the Malabar Coast, in the state of Kerala.
Born to Dewan Bahadur(a title of honour given during British rule in India) Edavalath Kakkat Krishnan (he was a sub-judge) and Devi Kuruvayi, Janaki probably developed her passion for botany from her father. He was interested in botany and ornithology and penned two books on the birds of Malabar; not a mean achievement in those days. He had nineteen children from two marriages and Janaki was the 10th eldest among the children from his second wife.
Janaki did her schooling from Sacred Heart Convent in Thalassery. That was followed by her studying at Queen Mary’s College, Madras (now Chennai) from where she got her bachelors degree. She did an honours degree in Botany from Presidency College, in Madras.
One of the important gateways to her academic career opened up when she got a Barbour Scholarship from the University of Michigan to do her Master’s degree. That was in 1924. During that time, her marriage was planned but she made an extremely bold decision for a young woman of 1920s India; she choose academics over marriage. Those were the days when the literacy rate in India was a glorious 2 percent and a woman finishing school in colonial India was an exception!
However, it must be mentioned that unlike most Indian families of those utterly regressive days when girls and women seldom used to get an opportunity to exercise their talent or finding their identity, Janaki’s family extended wholehearted support to her.
She eventually got her Master’s degree in botany from the University of Michigan, in 1926. Janaki returned to India and began working as a Professor in the Women’s Christian College in Madras. She continued to do so for some years, when she went again to the University of Michigan as an Oriental Barbour Fellow. She earned her PhD in 1931. With that she became the first woman to get a Phd in botany in the US. Her thesis was titled ‘Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides’.
Making Sugarcane Sweeter
She again returned to India, and worked as Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, which is now University College, Trivandrum, between 1932-1934.
Her more than significant work was not going unrecognized in the then India’s scientific community. The great physicist and the second Noble laureate from India, C V Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935 and selected Janaki as a Research Fellow in its first year itself. Indian Academy of Sciences got its first woman fellow with Janaki.
Then Janaki joined Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore (a city in Tamil Nadu) where she made sugarcane sweeter for India, about which we have mentioned in the beginning of this write-up. Janaki created a high yielding strain of the sugarcane which could thrive in Indian conditions by manipulating polyploid cells through cross-breeding of hybrids.
However, it was not easy for an independent woman professional to thrive in India in those days, especially if she happened to be a single woman from so called backward caste and also super successful in her field. She faced lots of problem from her male colleagues at Coimbatore in the form of caste and gender-based discrimination.
The UK Innings
One can’t be sure, but probably the spate of continued discrimination induced her to again look westwards. The eminent botanist joined John Innes Horticultural Institute, Merton, London as an Assistant Cytologist where her significant and long-term academic collaboration with Cyril Dean Darlington begun. One of the important reflections of their fruitful collaboration was the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which she and C.D. Darlington co-authored. It was published in 1945.
Even the danger of World War-II could not dampen her spirit of research. The brave and brilliant woman would dive under her bed during the night bombings but continued with her research work the next day. She would casually brush off the broken glass from bombings off the shelves as she used to brush off her fear.
During 1945-51, Janaki worked as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley, in the UK. During that period, she studied the cytology of Magnolias, and carried out experiment on their hybridization. There she also explored how by using colchicine larger plants could be grown quickly.
For her Country
In 1951, the botanist was invited by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to return to India for restructuring the Botanical Survey of India, which she did. She was also requested by Jawaharlal Nehru to use her knowledge to increase India’s food production, which she sincerely tried to. Janaki was appointed as the first Director of the Central Botanical Laboratory, in Allahabad.
In her later years, she worked with Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay and as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) in Botany, University of Madras. Her last tenure was with the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal.
Besides being a great botanist, she was also a passionate environmental activist. It was because of a successful protest movement led in 1970 by a then 73-year-old Janaki against the building of a hydropower dam project, the rich ecosystem of Silent Valley National Park in Kerala was saved. If the project had been materialized, the rich biodiversity of Silent Valley National Park would have been eroded. It was because of her immense zeal that the project against environment was scrapped.
Janaki received Padma Shree in 1977, at the fag end of her life. She should have been recognized with this honor much before.
She is known as a great Indian botanist.
No, she expired on 7th February 1984. The age of Janaki Ammal at the time of her demise was 86 years.
A variety of Magnolia she created is named by Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley as Magnolia Kobus ‘Janaki Ammal.’ This can be construed as a well-deserved honor for her great work.