India’s pioneer botanist (1897 – 1984)

Dr. E.K. Janaki Ammal was the first Indian woman botanist who worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics of a range of plants and phytogeography. She is credited with putting sweetness into India’s sugarcane varieties.

Janaki was born in then Thallassery, Kerala on 4 November 1897. Her father, Dewan Bahadur E.K. Krishnan, a sub-judge in the then Madras Presidency, a man with a keen interest in the natural sciences, corresponded regularly with scholars and maintained descriptive notes about his developing garden. He also wrote two books on birds in the North Malabar region of India. It was in this environment that Ammal found her affinity. She embarked on a life of scholarship shunning matrimony, and obtained a bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College in 1921. She then taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras before receiving a unique opportunity– to study abroad for free on Barbour Scholarship. Joining the Botany department at Michigan in 1924, she had a Master’s degree in 1925, was the first woman to obtain a PhD in 1931, and one of the few Asian women to be conferred honorary doctorate (DSc. honoris causa).

Moving back to Thiruvananthapuram, she was professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science from 1932 to 1934. India’s native sugarcane crop, though produced in abundance was not as sweet as the ones grown in the Far East. As Geneticist from 1934-1939 at the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute, her work was to make sugarcane hybrids indigenous and develop and sustain its own sweet sugarcane varieties. A single woman, she faced wide criticism, caste and gender-based discrimination among her male peers and hence in 1940, Ammal moved to Norfolk, England, to begin work as Assistant Cytologist to C.D. Darlington at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London. The pair in 1945 coauthored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, a compilation, still a key text for plant scientists today. Continuing her phenomenal research at a time when German planes were bombing London, the courageous woman would dive under her bed during the night bombings, but continue with the research work the next day. Impressed by her passion, in 1946, the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley, near Kew Gardens offered Janaki a paid position as a Cytologist, its first salaried woman staff member, where she met some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and botanists. 

In 1951, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her to return to India to improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture and restructure the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). Janaki felt the need to value the indigenous knowledge about Indian plants and pioneered both indigenous and gendered environmental approaches to land use. After retirement she worked briefly at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay and then settled down in Madras at Maduravoyal in November 1970, working as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) in Botany. Here she developed a garden of medicinal plants with great zeal and dedication.

One of the first women scientists to receive the Padma Shri way back in 1977, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India instituted two awards in her name in 1999: E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant Taxonomy and E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award on Animal Taxonomy.  The John Innes Centre offers a scholarship to PhD students from developing countries in her name. There is a herbarium with over 25,000 species in Jammu Tawi that is named after her. There is even a flower named after her, a delicate bloom in pure white called Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal and a rose hybrid named E.K. Janaki Amma.

An inspiring role model, at 87, she passed away in Madras on 7 February 1984. Decades after her death, her work still remains largely unknown within the country and outside academic circles.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.