Field: Botany and plant cytology
Have you had that fresh glass of sugarcane juice in the summer season? Well, you can thank E. K. Janaki Ammal for putting more sweetness into the sugarcane ( Indian varieties ). Yes, it is her, Janaki Ammal . Let us know more about her.
She was one of the pioneers in her own field and made significant contributions in the field of genetics, evolution, phytogeography, and ethnobotany. Janaki Ammal is also credited for speaking against the hydroelectric project in Kerala’s Silent Valley and the phenomenal study of chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants.
She was fierce and fought against all patriarchal norms to fulfill her goal. when even high school education was a dream for many, she went ahead to complete her Ph.D. Yet, she remains unknown apart from the academic circle and this is really sad. Because somehow we as a nation have never given the due credit to academicians.
She was born in Tellichery (now Thallassery) in Kerala on November 4, 1897. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge in what was then the Madras Presidency. Her father had a keen interest in gardening and somehow this affected deeply impacted Janaki who was among nineteen children that Dewan Sahab had from his two wives. Janaki was the tenth child of his second wife named Devi Ammal.
Janaki obtained her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College and her Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency College in 1921. he then taught at the Women’s Christian College (WCC), Madras (now Chennai), with a sojourn as a Barbour Scholar at theUniversity of Michigan in the USA where she obtained her Master’s degree in 1925. She chose this scholarship over her marriage and left abroad to pursue her studies.
After returning to India, she continued to teach at the WTC but went to Michigan again as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc in 1931. The Kerala-born Ammal was arguably the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S. (1931) and remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred a D.Sc. (honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Her Ph.D. thesis titled “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides” was published in 1932.
On her return, she became Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum, and taught there from 1932 to 34. From 1934 to 1939 she worked as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore along with Charles Alfred Barber. At that time, the sweetest sugarcane in the world was the Saccharum officianarum variety from Papua New Guinea and India imported it from Southeast Asia. By manipulating polyploid cells through the cross-breeding of hybrids in the laboratory, Janaki was able to create a high-yielding strain of the sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. Her research also helped analyze the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India, and to establish that the S. Spontaneum variety of sugarcane had originated in India.
In 1935, the famous scientist and Noble laureate C V Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences and selected Janaki as a research fellow in its very first year. However, her status as a single woman from a caste considered backward created irreconcilable problems for Janaki among her male peers at Coimbatore. Facing caste and gender-based discrimination, Janaki left for London where she joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist.
From 1940 to 1945 she worked as Assistant Cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, and as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley from 1945 to 1951. She published innumerable papers during this time. During her tenure at the society, she worked on a plant named Magnolia. Till today the Society’s campus at Wisley there are magnolia shrubs she planted and among them is a variety with small white flowers named after her: Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal which was named after her!
At the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru, she returned to India in 1951 to reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She was appointed as Officer on Special Duty to the BSI on 14 October 1952. She served as the Director-General of the BSI.
She was not only a scientist but also an environmental activist. She played an active role in opposing the building of hydro-power dam across the river Kunthipuzha in Kerala’s Silent Valley.
After her retirement, a staunch Gandhian she worked in the field of science and served for a short period at the Atomic Research Station at Trombay before serving as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras.
She died at the age of 87, in her research lab while conducting her research.
For her exemplary contribution to science in India, Dr. Janaki Ammal was awarded the Padma Shri in 1977. In 2000, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry created the National Award of Taxonomy in her name.
PS: I have planned to take up non-fiction this year as my theme for the A2Z challenge, where every day in the month of April ( except Sundays) I will be writing about women in the stream of science and their contributions. Disclaimer -The information collected is from different sources available online.
The main objective is to draw inspiration and share information about such great lives who did it, despite all difficulties in their life.
I’m participating in #BlogchatterA2Z .