Remembering Janaki Ammal: The Pioneer With Green Fingers

5/5/2017 3:45:11 PM
written By : Team India Se Print

The fight for independence from British colonialism, the need to make India self-sufficient and one woman who defied gender norms and casteism to pursue her passion in science — it was the unlikely combination of these factors that gave Indian-grown sugarcane the much-relished sweetness it has today. Not many know of Janaki Ammal, the pioneering botanist and cytogeneticist who made significant contributions in imbuing India’s sugarcane varieties with their characteristic sweet flavour.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born in Tellichery (now Thallassery) in Kerala on November 4, 1897 to Madras presidency sub-judge Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan and his second wife Deviamma as the tenth of their thirteen children. Janaki Ammal lived in an era where it was almost unheard of for women to pursue higher education; many women were hardly allowed to make it past high school. For them to pursue an education in the sciences was far rarer. Yet, Janaki Ammal went against the grain. She chose an education over marriage to a first cousin, for which she drew much flak. Unfazed, she pursued an honours degree in Botany from the Madras Presidency College in 1921. Her brilliance gained recognition even miles away from home — she obtained a Masters scholarship, a Ph.D in botany and an honorary doctorate from one of America’s finest universities, the University of Michigan.

It was during this period that India was fighting to break free from British colonial shackles, and nationalists felt the increasing need to make India self-sufficient. For example, during the 1910s, well-known scholar and activist Madan Mohan Malaviya emphasised that India had to improve on her native sugarcane varieties, which were sturdy but not as sweet as the ones being imported from Papua New Guinea. Janaki Ammal helped make his vision a reality when she joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station in Coimbatore to work on sugarcane biology in the late 1930s. Armed with expertise in cytogenetics (the study of genetic content and expression of genes in cells), she worked with scientists to cross-breed hybrids in the laboratory to create a high-yielding strain of sugarcane that was not only sweeter, but would also thrive in Indian conditions. Through her research, she also analysed the geographical distribution of sugarcane across the Indian sub-continent and established that the S. Spontaneum variety of sugarcane was native to India.

Her immense talent did not go unnoticed. In 1935, famous scientist and Nobel laureate C V Raman himself selected Janaki to be a research fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences, which he had founded.

Unfortunately, an impressive intellect and relentless dedication were not enough for a capable woman to be accepted in 1930s Indian society, even by the educated elite of the time. As a single woman from a community considered backward, sacrificing married life for an illustrious career was probably the most audacious thing Janaki Ammal could do at the time. And for that, she paid the price. Caste and gender-based discrimination from her male peers at Coimbatore made life so uneasy that she quit and left for London in 1940. There, she made significant contributions to Botany while working with the John Innes Horticultural Institute and then the Royal Horticultural Society. In honour of her work on the cytogenetics of the magnolia plant, a variety of the plant was named after her: ‘Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal’. To have made a name abroad was a great accomplishment for any Indian, at a time when Indians were regarded poorly in colonial eyes.

When India had achieved independence, Janaki Ammal was personally invited back to India by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to restructure the Botanical Survey of India. Hence, she was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty to the BSI.

Janaki’s contributions to the natural world extended beyond botany — she was an ardent environmental activist who spoke out against the building of a hydro-power dam in Kerala’s Silent Valley. She was also the only woman to be invited to Princeton in 1955 for an international symposium that saw the world’s finest environmentalists in attendance. A sole Indian woman delivering a speech to a room full of white men could seem like a jarring anomaly, perhaps even today. However, her race and gender were never seen as liabilities by Janaki Ammal even in a time when an unforgiving hierarchy prevailed in these constructs. Unperturbed by her conspicuous presence and differentness from all the other white men presenting at the symposium, Janaki Ammal presented her own paper on the subsistence economy of India and the importance of the indigenous knowledge of tribal communities for sustainable development.

After her retirement, she continued her contributions to science in Bombay and Madras, till her death at the age of 87 in 1984. A few years before her death, in 1977, Janaki Ammal was honoured with the prestigious Padma Shri award for her outstanding work and dedication in the field of science, the most significant contribution being making Indian sugarcanes sweeter. Geeta Doctor, a niece, once wrote of her: “Janaki was a tall and commanding presence in her prime…Like certain Buddhist orders, she took a vow of chastity, austerity and silence for herself, limiting her needs to the barest minimum. She refused to speak about her life saying, ‘My work is what will survive’.” To this day, magnolia flowers planted by Janaki Ammal bloom in the Wisley campus of the Royal Horticultural Society, as testament to her pioneering spirit and unwavering ambition and curiosity.


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