Next time when you are munching sugarcane, you might like to reminisce Dr. Janaki Ammal for bestowing you with such a sweet cane. Barely recognized outside her academic and scientific circles, Dr. Janaki is a prominent figure in the field of botany and plant cytology (the study of genes in plant cells).
Also, she was the first woman scientist to receive the prestigious Padma Shri and secure a Ph.D. in botany from the USA.
Best known for scientifically producing India’s sugarcane varieties sweet, Dr. Janaki broke societal customs and went overseas to pursue higher education, years before India woke-up to independence.
She returned accomplished, breaking every caste and gender barricade through her scientific work. Let us take a look at her journey and accomplishments.
Born in a small hamlet of Thalassery, Kerala, in 1897, Edavalath Kakkat Janaki Ammal inherited her love for plants from her father, a sub-judge under the Madras Presidency. She was born into a cultured middle-class Thiyya family, a caste considered low in the social hierarchy. Sadly, due to this, she faced social prejudices.
After finishing her schooling, Janaki Ammal moved to Madras to pursue graduation from Queen Mary’s College, followed by an Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency College. While teaching at Women’s Christian College, Madras, she landed the prestigious Barbour fellowship at the University of Michigan, U.S.
Here, she obtained a Master’s degree in botany at the mere age of 25. It was a time when ‘crossing the seven seas’ was taboo for women who were thought of as mere childbearing machines. After teaching at the same college for a brief time, she again went to the University of Michigan as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow and obtained a Ph.D. in 1931. Janaki became Dr. Janaki, the first Indian woman to receive a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S. Later, in 1956, the same university felicitated her an honorary LLD.
Upon returning to India, Janaki Ammal joined Sugarcane Breeding Institute (SBI) in Coimbatore as a geneticist. Freedom fighter and scholar Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, keen on India having its sweet sugarcane variety, established SBI. Though India produced plenty of sugarcane, they were not as delicious as their counterparts (S. officinarum) imported from Java and the Far East.
It was here that while working with CA Barker, Dr. Janaki fulfilled the SBI’s founder’s vision. She helped create hybrid high-yield varieties of sweetened sugarcane, Saccharaum spontaneum, that could thrive in Indian conditions and that we relish today.
Ammal’s work on sugarcane led to the identification of sweet sugarcane variety that was native to India. She remains to be known as the woman responsible for making the Indian sugarcane sweet.
Consequently, in 1935, when the Noble laureate and scientist Sir CV Raman instituted the Indian Academy of Sciences, he selected Ammal as a research fellow in its very first year.
Ammal braved a male-dominated, conservative society and went abroad not once but numerous times. Accounts of her life, available publicly, communicate caste and gender biases, sadly forcing her to relocate to Britain in 1940.
She was forced to extend her stay because of the World War II bombings. However, her commitment and courage were praiseworthy. Such was her dedication towards plant science that even the bombings couldn’t deter her from carrying out her work.
She spent the next six years at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, England. While working as an assistant cytologist to biologist C.D. Darlington, she studied various garden plants’ chromosomal studies.
In 1945, Darlington and Ammal co-wrote a book called The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants. Considered a bible for plant scientists worldwide even today, the book records study on chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants.
In the following years, Dr. Janaki Ammal was invited to work as a cytologist at London’s Royal Horticultural Society, where she studied Magnolia. In her honor, a cross-breed of the Magnolia flower she created was named after her-Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.
In 1951, after India achieved independence, she returned to India to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She worked as a government-appointed supervisor-in-charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Allahabad.
In 1962, she served as an Officer on Special duty at Regional Research Lab in Jammu and Kashmir. She worked in different parts of India in various capacities.
She was the first woman scientist to be conferred Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor awarded by India’s Government in 1977. Although she retired, she never really could say goodbye to science and served for a short period at the Babha Atomic Research Station at Trombay.
In the later years of her career, Dr. Janaki Ammal lent her support to an environmental movement called Save Silent Valley, a campaign against the construction of a hydropower dam that would flood the Western Ghats’ precious Silent Valley forests.
By the time she joined the protest, she was a well-known voice in Indian science and Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras.
She lived and worked in the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras until her demise in 1984 at 87. Ammal’s biography is titled E K Janaki Ammal; Aadya Indian Sasya Sasthranjha. It is written by a retired school teacher Nirmala James of Kadakkal in Kollam district.
Ammal led a Gandhian life, maintained Indian ‘attire‘ and habits, and never married. Perhaps, she did not earn the accolades her contribution warranted her for, but her research commitment paved the way for many others.
She has been a fighter throughout her life, whether it is her caste, single woman status, or a patriarchal culture in science. Through her work, she proved that science is par caste, gender, or social walls.
No vital records archive her remarkable journey from a small town in Thalassery to the world’s most renowned institutions. Women leaders like Janaki Ammal, who played an essential role in Indian and International science, are eternal.