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The first Indian woman botanist, E K Janaki Ammal, ought to be more widely known for her huge contributions to science. But she remains unknown within the country and outside academic circles. Even our textbooks have failed to teach our children about her glorious scientific history. Though, the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, UK, had recently announced a new scholarship for post-graduate students from developing countries in honour of this lady. Under the scheme, 88 applicants who wish to study plant and microbial sciences can apply in commemoration of the distinguished work and contributions of Dr E.K.Janaki Ammal who was an international alumni of the leading research and training centre between 1940 and 1945. It would have been more relevant if the Indian government had done something similar for the country’s first home grown woman scientist, who went overseas and returned accomplished breaking every caste and gender barrier through her work.
At a time when most Indian women did not even attend school, she received scholarship and obtained her MS from University of Michigan in 1925 and later returned as the first Indian Oriental Barbour Fellow. She remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred honorary doctorate (DSc. honoris causa) by her alma mater in 1931. There she discovered a new variety of brinjal that exhibited triploidy instead of the normal diploid, where there are two sets of chromosomes in the cells. During the World War II bombings in the 1940s, she continued her phenomenal research into chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, Norfolk, where she worked with some of the best names in cytology, genetics and botany. While working on the gorgeous Magnolia, she co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with renowned biologist CD Darlington. The magnolia saplings she planted on the Battleston Hill in Wisley continue to bloom every Spring and one of the pure white blooms is named after her, the Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal and apparently only few nurseries in Europe have the variety today.
At the insistence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she returned to India in the 1950s and restructured the Botanical Society of India travelling to several remote areas of the country in search of the plant lore of the indigenous people and scouting for medicinal plants in her home State, Kerala. After laborious crossbreeding in the laboratory of Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore in the 1930s, she created the indigenous variety of sweetened sugarcane that we consume today. Till then India was producing sugarcane in abundance and yet importing as they were not as sweet as the ones grown in the Far East. Ammal made several intergeneric hybrids: Saccharum x Zea, Saccharum x Erianthus, Saccharum x Imperata and Saccharum x Sorghum. From then onwards, Ammal was in the service of the government of India in various capacities including heading the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad, and was officer on special duty at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu. She worked for a brief period at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay before settling down in Madras in November 1970 as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. She attributed the higher rate of plant speciation in the cold and humid northeast Himalayas as compared to the cold and dry northwest Himalayas to polyploidy. Also, according to her, the confluence of Chinese and Malayan elements in the flora of northeast India led to natural hybridisation between these and the native flora in this region, contributing further to plant diversification.
She was a fascinating figure of the early 20th Century. E.K.Janaki Ammal lived a life which perhaps very few women of her time could dream of. The distinguished geneticist, cytologist, global plant geographer studied about ecology and biodiversity too and did not fear to take on the Government as an ardent environmental activist. She played an important role in the protests against the building of a hydro-power dam in Kerala’s Silent Valley in the 1970s. She made a mark with her paper on “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” at an international symposium in Princeton in 1955 and two decades later, she was awarded the Padmashri in 1977.
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). A single woman, she faced wide criticism, caste and gender-based discrimination among her male peers in India and that was the reason she moved to Norfolk in England in 1940.
During the years 1939–1950 she spent in England, she did chromosome studies of a wide range of garden plants. Her studies on chromosome numbers and ploidy in many cases threw light on the evolution of species and varieties. The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants which she wrote jointly with C. D. Darlington in 1945 was a compilation that incorporated much of her own work on many species. Ammal also worked on the genera Solanum, Datura, Mentha, Cymbopogon and Dioscorea besides medicinal and other plants. Following her retirement, Ammal continued to work focusing special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued to publish the original findings of her research. In the Centre of Advanced Study Field Laboratory where she lived and worked, she developed a garden of medicinal plants. She also worked on cytology and ethnobotany. As a geneticist working for the Royal Horticultural Society's Garden Wisley in the early 1950s, Dr. Janaki was investigating the effects of colchicine on a number of woody plants, including Magnolia, where a stock solution in water is made up and applied to the growing tip of young seedlings once the cotyledons (seed leaves) have fully expanded. Doubling of chromosomes occurs, giving the cells twice the usual number. The resulting plants have heavier textured leaves; their flowers are variable, often with thicker tepals, helping them last longer. As Magnolia kobus seeds were available in quantity, a number of seedlings were treated by Dr Janaki Ammal and ultimately planted on Battleston Hill at Wisley.
An inspiring role model, Janaki Ammal passed away in 1984 at the age of 87 at Maduravoyal near Chennai, while working in the field laboratory of the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, Univerity of Madras. Her obituary stated: "She was devoted to her studies and research until the end of her life." Aptly chosen lines from the Rig Veda that highlight her fondness for plants mark her obituary: "The sun receive thine eye, the wind thy spirit; go as thy merit is, to earth or heaven. Go, if it be thy lot, unto water; go make thine house in plants with all thy members " She proved through her work that Science knows no caste, gender or social boundaries. Yet for her extraordinary journey from small town Thalassery to the finest institutions across the world, there is no archive related to her in India. Her papers are available only in hard copy at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.