Janaki Ammal: Magnolia Lady

Mamata Pandya

Whenever I write a piece about plants, one of the things that interests me is how the plant got its botanical name. In many cases the nomenclature includes the name of the scientist who was associated with the discovery or study of the plant. Most of the names are western. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about a plant that is named after an Indian botanist, and that too a lady! This plant is a variety of the magnolia and is named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

The story of Janaki Ammal herself is fascinating and inspiring. And her contribution to plant sciences covers a wide and impressive range of achievements.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on 4 November 1897 in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala. Her father, Dewan Bahadur E K Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a large family consisting of 19 children from two wives, and Janaki grew up amidst numerous siblings, in a home environment which had a well-stocked library that included scientific and literary journals, and a well-tended garden. Her father had a keen interest in natural sciences and kept abreast with developments in the sciences. He also wrote two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. From an early age, Janaki herself had an avid interest in the natural environment and a scientific temperament.

It is this that decided her further academic studies after she finished school in Tellicherry. At a time when women (including her sisters) were married off at a young age, Janaki chose to move away from home in pursuit of higher education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College. After graduating, she taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras. It was then that she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship for Asian women to study in the United States. She travelled to America to join the University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar in 1924 and earned her Masters of Science degree in 1925. She continued her work on plant cytology and breeding of hybrid plants and earned her doctorate in 1931. She was the first Indian woman to receive this degree in botany in the US.

Returning with a doctorate from the US, Janaki went back to teaching as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, from 1932-1934. She then joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore. At the time, India was importing sugarcane. Although India also produced a lot of sugarcane, it was not as sweet as the imported one. The Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore had been set up to carry out research to improve the quality of sugarcane grown in India. The work of two scientists there, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman, especially in cross-breeding different varieties, was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Photo: RHS / Lee Charlton

Ammal joined these scientists at the research institute in 1934 and started her research in sugarcane. Her cytogenetic research of sugarcane, and her experiments with cross-breeding and hybrids led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyze the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India.

Janaki faced many professional and personal challenges as a highly educated unmarried female scientist in a male-dominated institute, where despite the “science”, a patriarchal and traditional mindset prevailed with respect to gender and caste. Despite this, in 1935, she was selected as one of the first Research Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences set up by the Nobel laureate CV Raman.

In 1940 Janaki went to England and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London as an assistant cytologist. England had just declared war on Germany; Janaki worked through the bombings and blackouts, often, it is reported, diving under her bed at night as London was bombed, and going to her lab in the morning to clear the broken glass and debris from the previous night’s bombing, while she continued to focus on her research.

Janaki worked closely with the geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington for five years. The two collaborated to write the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is a key text for plant scientists even today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Wisley as a cytologist. Janaki became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations was a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. This was named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal in her honour, and continues to bloom in Wisely even today.

Janaki returned to India in the early 1950s at the request of the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Her brief was to “improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture”.

She was appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 to collect and survey India’s flora, under the supervision of Britain’s Kew Gardens.

It was during this period that Janaki found herself looking beyond pure research and realizing that in the race for increasing food grain production, the country was losing vast tracts of forests and valuable indigenous plant species. She was also distressed that despite independence, the system of plant collection and research remained colonial in mindset and practice. She was also keen to revitalize and indigenize botanical surveys. After spending decades applying her research skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. She began to speak of the value of indigenous cultures and the important role of women in preserving and cultivating local plants, which were being threatened by mass production of cereals.

Janaki was among the pioneers that foresaw and warned of the threats to fragile ecosystems in the race for ‘development’. She continued to speak out about this till the end of her life. At the age of 80 she vociferously opposed the proposed hydroelectric plant in Silent Valley in Kerala that would have threatened the unique biodiversity of a pristine evergreen tropical forest. Her voice as an eminent national scientist was respected, and was contributory to the scrapping of the proposal.

Janaki Ammal continued her distinguished public career in many important government positions: she headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She worked as an officer on special duty at the regional research laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and had a brief spell at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. In November 1970, Janaki decided to settle down in Madras where she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. Her research work continued unabated, with special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued her research at the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras and kept publishing her work until her demise in February 1984.

A lifetime of pioneering work by a woman well ahead of her times. But whenever she was asked about her life, all she had to say was “my work is what will survive”. An unassuming woman who lived a simple Gandhian life, married to her work, and her first and life-long love for plants. A brilliant mind who made her own choices and forged her own path in her pursuit of knowledge. Janaki Ammal – a trial blazer who “sweetened the nation and saved a valley”.

The author worked at the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad for over three decades, where she was engaged in instructional design for educators and children. She is now an independent consultant, editor, writer, translator, storyteller and blogger. She can be reached at mamata.pandya@gmail.com.

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