January 20th, 2017
In a country whose history spans hundreds of years of exponential inequality, where customs and culture have a strong influence on the social and political life of the people, the social mixture cobwebs make it difficult for a woman to escape discrimination and reach better opportunities to empower themselves. In times when society was largely patriarchal and conservative, there was a woman who not only braved the most stringent odds but also etched her name in the field of science.
Dr. Janaki Ammal, a world-renowned botanist and cytologist paved the way for a lot of young women to embrace science and progress in the 20th century. Let us have a look at her journey and accomplishments.
Janaki Ammal was born in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala on November 4, 1897. Her father, Deewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was sub-judge of the Madras Presidency. He had two wives, and Janaki was the tenth child of his second wife Devi Amma, who bore him 13 children.
What made Janaki defy a patriarchal society?
Growing up in a large family, Janaki was always inspired by her father. Her father had a keen interest in natural science, and his learnings were a source of pride for his large family. Apart from being a sub-judge, he also kept copious notes while tending his garden and maintained a well-stocked library. He would also stay abreast of the latest news from his journals of science and literature. Additionally, he authored two books on birds of the North Malabar region.
For Janaki, the seeds of passion for proving herself were sowed in childhood by her father.
Blooming in Madras.
Janaki moved to Madras after completing her school in Tellicherry. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College and did her Honours in Botany from Presidency College in 1921. She taught at Women’s Christian College, Madras. After receiving the Barbour Scholarship, she moved to the University of Michigan from where she obtained her Master’s degree in 1925.
She returned to India and continued to teach at the Women’s Christian College but relocated to Michigan again as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc (Doctorate of Science) in 1931. From 1932 to 1934 she served as a Professor of Botany at the Maharaja College of Science in Trivandrum.
Etching her name in an ultra-conservative society.
Back then in the 1920s, the sweetest sugar cane was imported from Papua New Guinea. A well-known scholar, Madan Mohan Malaviya, suggested that India should improve sugarcane varieties and this led to the building of the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore, Madras which was led by CA Barber.
As an expert in cytogenetics (the study of genetic content and expression of genes in the cell), Janaki joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore to work on sugarcane biology.
Janaki’s research in this field led to identifying hybrid varieties of high-yielding sugarcane that could thrive in atmospheric conditions of India.
In 1935, CV Raman, the famous scientist and Nobel laureate founded the Indian Academy of Sciences and selected Janaki as a research fellow. But her status as a single woman would always invite unnecessary problems from her male peers.
She left for London as an assistant cytologist in the Innes Horticultural Institute.
No caste or bomb could interrupt her work.
Janaki stayed in London during the Second World War when German planes were bombing London. She stated once that she would dive under her bed at night during bombings and continue her research the next day after cleaning the broken glasses off the shelves.
Impressed by her work, the Royal Horticulture Society invited her as a cytologist. She also co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with renowned biologist CD Darlington.
Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
At the Royal Horticulture Society, she worked on Magnolia, and to this day the society campus has the magnolia shrubs she planted. Among them are small variety flowers named after her – ‘Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal’.
With long broom on streets.
Janaki relocated to India in 1951 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her. She restructured the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) and served as the Officer on Special Duty in Calcutta in 1954. She would travel to remote areas of the country in search of plant lore and would spend time searching for medicinal plants in Wayanad. Her colleagues would later reminisce how Janaki would take a long broom and clean the streets outside the BSI office on Chowringhee Lane.
An ardent environmental activist.
Besides being a keen researcher, Janaki was a passionate environmental activist. She participated in many protests against the building of a hydropower dam across the Kunthipuzha River in the Silent Valley of Kerala.
Dr. Janaki Ammal passed away on February 7, 1984, while she was working in her research lab at Maduravoyal. She was 87.
She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1977, and in 2000 the Ministry of Environment and Forestry created the National Award Taxonomy in her name.
As a tribute to her, a herbarium with over 25,000 species has been set up in Jammu Tawi – which was named after her.
Like some Buddhists, she also took a vow of celibacy, austerity, and silence. She never spoke about her life and believed that her work would survive forever.
So the next time you put a spoonful of sugar grown by Indian sugarcane farmers in your coffee, remember Dr Janaki Ammal. The sweetness was possible only because of her research.