Janaki Ammal, India's First Woman Botanist Made Sugarcane Sweeter

Janaki Ammal's work to make sugarcane hybrids was indigenous. In the pages of history, she remains to be known as the woman responsible for making the Indian sugarcane sweet.

Ria Das
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janaki ammal first female botanist

Image: Millenial Matriarchs

The next time you're adding a spoonful of sugar to your coffee, remember E K Janaki Ammal, the first woman botanist in India, best known for her contributions to making sugarcane sweet. The pioneering scientist is also credited with groundbreaking studies on plant breeding, genetics and cytogenetics. She was also one of the first women scientists to receive the Padma Shri way back in 1977. Originally from Kerala, Ammal fought gender and caste barriers to pursue a PhD from one of America’s finest public universities. Despite the challenges imposed on women in the early 20th century, Ammal persevered and took the world of science by storm.


While Ammal's contributions to science went largely unappreciated or overshadowed, her dedication to the field and the way she lived her life inspired generations. She was also bestowed with the honour of having a flower named after her-- A delicate white bloom called Magnolia Kobus 'Janaki Ammal'.

janaki ammal flower
Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal

The journey to making history in science

Janaki Ammal was born on November 4, 1897, in Thalassery, Kerala. Born to Deviammal Kuruvayi and Diwan Bahadur E K Krishnan, a sub-judge under the Madras Presidency, Ammal’s love for plants was inherited from her father. She had 18 siblings and was born into the Thiyya caste. 

After completing basic education in her locality, Ammal pursued a Bachelor’s Degree from Queen Mary’s College Madras. Later she received an Honours Degree in Botany from Presidency College, Madras, before moving to the University of Michigan, earning a master's degree in botany in 1926 through the Barbour Scholarship. She returned to India for a few years and started teaching at Women’s Christian College, Madras.

Coming back home, she was forced to accept a marriage proposal to her first cousin but said a straight no and travelled to Michigan again to continue her education. She went back to the University of Michigan as an Oriental Barbour Fellow and became the first Indian woman to obtain a PhD in botany in the US in 1931. She moved back to Thiruvananthapuram and started a job as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science between 1932 and 1934.


She started working at the Sugar Breeding Station in Coimbatore in the 1930s when she helped create a variety of sweetened sugarcane that we consume today. Her work to make sugarcane hybrids was indigenous and in the pages of history, she remains to be known as the woman responsible for making the Indian sugarcane sweet.

Although, as a single woman she was widely criticised among her male peers at Coimbatore. She even faced caste and gender-based discrimination and decided to move to London where she joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist. From 1940 to 1945, when German planes were bombing London, Ammal saw the entire war going down before her eyes. Later, she described how horrific the situation was and how she would settle under her bed during the night bombings.

She remained persistent with her research work even though her house was bombed and impressed the Royal Horticulture Society. She started working as a cytologist at the campus at Wisley, near Kew Gardens, famous for its collection of plants from around the world. It was during her years at Wisley that she met some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and botanists in the world.

In 1945, Ammal co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, a study of chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants. In 1951, the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru invited her to return to India and work at the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She took up the job as the Officer on Special Duty to the BSI and was reorganised the Calcutta office in 1954. 

Even after retirement she never really could say goodbye to 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.  At 87, Janaki Ammal passed away in 1984 while working in her research lab at Maduravoyal.

women in STEM Janaki Ammal first female botanist