Dr E K Janaki Ammal, born in 1897 in Thalassery, was the first woman botanist in India. Decades after her death, the woman scientist’s contributions to the field of cytology and plant breeding remains largely unknown. Ammal was globally known for ‘making Indian sugarcane sweet.’
The phenomenal botanist, who was also one of the first women scientists to receive the Padma Shri way back in 1977, is hardly known outside academic and scientific circles.
Ammal lived in a male-dominated era and pursued a PhD from one of America’s finest public universities. Years later her contributions in the field took the world by storm to inspire younger generations.
The journey to making history in science
In 1945, Ammal co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, a study of chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants. She was an international alumnus of a John Innes Centre in Norfolk, UK, between 1940 and 1945. But her illustrious career started with 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.
The cytogeneticist was bestowed with the honour of having a flower named after her. A delicate white bloom called Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
Born to Diwan Bahadur EK Krishnan, a sub-judge under the Madras Presidency, and Deviammal, 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. After completing her education in 1921, she started teaching at Women’s Christian College and that set the path to receive the prestigious Barbour scholarship from the University of Michigan in the US.
Battling challenges ever since
Coming back home, she was forced to accept a marriage proposal but said a straight no and travelled to Michigan again to continue her education. With a Master’s Degree from Michigan in 1925 and a dream to pursue her doctoral thesis there, Ammal had been on the verge of making history as an eminent scientist. She moved back to Thiruvananthapuram and started a job as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science between 1932 to 1934.
She escaped a marriage to a first cousin and went on to become the first woman to obtain a PhD in botany in the US in 1931. Ammal worked extensively on genetic crosses.
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. During 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 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.
Ammal’s biography is titled, E K Janaki Ammal; Aadya Indian Sasya Sasthranjha (E K Janaki Ammal; First Indian Botanist). It is written by retired school teacher Nirmala James of Kadakkal in Kollam district.
Ammal remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred an honorary doctorate (DSc. honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan in 1931. However, her time into research took her to different parts of the country. She devoted her life and became one of the pioneers for Indian women in science who silently fought a patriarchal society and made a mark.
Now, an exhibition by the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) in Kolkata has an entire collection dedicated to Ammal’s life and achievements.