Though three-and-a-half decades have passed since the death of renowned Indian botanist, E K Janaki Ammal, her life and immense contributions to the field of cytology remain little known outside academic and scientific circles.
It was a space that retired school teacher Nirmala James of Kadakkal in Kollam district wanted to fill as she went on to write a detailed biography of Janaki, who was also one of the first women scientists to receive a Padma Shri back in 1977.
Even in her native Kerala, no text book carries the story of her illustrious career to inspire younger generations to move into scientific research and exploration. The book was written in Malayalam and published by state government-sponsored Kerala Bhasha Institute. But at a function held at Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute at Palode near Thiruvananthapuram on May 24, a number of researchers and scientists moulded by Janaki Ammal called for an English version of the book that could inspire generations.
“Janaki Ammal proved her own mettle by fighting against heavy odds in an area where women had seldom presence. Even outside the realms of science, her life story would inspire people because of the intensity of the struggles she faced. Her life is indeed a glorious chapter of women liberation and empowerment in the post-colonial India,’’ said P Pushpangadhan, a noted Botanist, who was chief guest on the occasion.
For Nirmala James, who has penned books on children’s literature, art and music, writing the biography of a scientist was a different experience. “It was easy for me to collect details of her scientific research and contributions. Most of the senior botanists in the country are her disciples. But collecting personal details of Janaki was a huge task as none of her immediate relatives are alive. Moreover, no written documents on her are available,’’ said Nirmala.
After numerous trips to Janaki’s hometown of Thalassery and to Chennai and Kozhikode, Niramala was able to meet some of the grandchildren of Janaki’s relatives. But they only had vague memories of the eminent scientist, who lived in different parts of the country, devoting most of her time to research.
Janaki was famous for putting the sweetness in our sugarcane varieties and speaking with authority against the controversial hydro-electric project in Kerala’s Silent Valley. Janaki was also known for her phenomenal study of chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants titled, The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which she co-authored with biologist CD Darlington.
The detailed biography is titled, E K Janaki Ammal; Aadya Indian Sasya Sasthranjha (E K Janaki Ammal; First Indian Botanist). “As the botanist community prefers, a detailed biography of Janaki must be brought out in English. A translator can easily bring out an English version of my work. Otherwise, I am ready to share the materials I have collected with anybody who can write an English book independently,’’ said Nirmala, who relocated post-retirement to Kattayikkonam in Thiruvananthapuram.
The journey to scientific discovery
Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal forged her own path into a male-dominated field at a young age, according to Nirmala. In her time, most women in Thalassery did not continue their education beyond high school, but Janaki chose education over marriage and went to the U.S. to study for her PhD.
Though women’s movements in Kerala are still unfamiliar with Janaki’s work, she was notably one of very few Asian women to be conferred an honorary doctorate (DSc. honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan in 1931. India’s pioneering cytogeneticist, she even has a flower named after her, a delicate white bloom called Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
“She is undoubtedly an extraordinary Kerala woman who braved a highly patriarchal and an ultra-conservative society to pursue her academic dreams with utmost devotion and commitment. Present day women of all fields have a lot to learn from her,’’ said Nirmala.
Born on November 4, 1897 in Thalassery, Janaki was the daughter of Diwan Bahadur EK Krishnan, a sub-judge under the Madras Presidency. Family members told Nirmala that Krishnan had an active interest in natural sciences and that prompted him to keep close contact with botanists of that time. He used to keep descriptive notes about plant species and created gardens of different trees and plants. Janaki was the tenth among 19 children from his two wives. Her mother was Deviammal.
On completing her school education locally, Janaki then went to Madras to obtain her Bachelor’s Degree from Queen Mary’s College and an Honours Degree in Botany from Presidency College. After completing her education in 1921, she started teaching at Women’s Christian College. She then got the prestigious Barbour scholarship from the University of Michigan in the U.S.
After turning down a marriage proposal from her first cousin, she travelled to to Michigan to continue her education. She obtained her Master’s Degree from Michigan in 1925 and returned to Madras to continue teaching at Women’s Christian College. Later, she went back to Michigan to pursue her doctoral thesis. On her return, she moved to Thiruvananthapuram to work as professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science, where she taught from 1932 to 1934.
Her contributions to science
The expertise in cytogenetics (the study of chromosomes and inheritance) prompted Janaki to join the Sugarcane Breeding Station in Coimbatore to work on sugarcane biology. In those days, Saccharum officianarum variety from Papua New Guinea was considered the sweetest sugarcane in the world. Though India was importing the crop, the Sugarcane Breeding Station was established in Coimbatore to develop indigenous varieties.
Through intense laboratory experiments, Janaki was able to generate a high-yielding sugarcane variety that would thrive under Indian conditions.
When famous scientist and Noble laureate C V Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935, Janaki was invited to be a research fellow. But she was not able to accept that offer.
According to Nirmala, Janaki was subjected to gender discrimination in Coimbatore because she was from a backward caste, and was unmarried. She ultimately left for London and joined John Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist.
Janaki worked at the institute from 1940 to 1945, leaving as German planes began to descend upon London. She used to tell her friends how she dove under her bed during night bombings and had to continue her research work the next day.
Recognising her skill and value, the Royal Horticulture Society invited Janaki to work as a cytologist on their campus at Wisley. The years she spent at Wisley helped Janaki meet some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and botanists in the world. In 1945, Janaki co-authored her book with biologist CD Darlington, who became her mentor.
In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her to return to India and restructure the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). After appointing her as Officer on Special Duty to the BSI, she reorganised the BSI office in erstwhile Calcutta.
She travelled to extremely remote areas in search of plants and the indigenous wisdom surrounding them. The areas she visited range from Wayanad to Ladakh. In the meantime, she led a simple and Gandhian life.
Post retirement, she 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 the age of 87, Janaki died on February 7, 1984 while working in her research lab at Maduravoyal in Chennai.
“It was a life dedicated to studies and research. She was active until the end of her life,” says Nirmala.
In 2000, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry created the National Award of Taxonomy in her name. There is also a herbarium with over 25,000 species in Jammu Tawi that is named after this pioneering botanist.
And in recent days, the John Innes Centre in England chose to honour Janaki by launching a new scholarship for post-graduate students from developing countries in her name.
“We have to respect the struggles she fought and the achievements she made. The Kerala Government and civil society must have responsibilities to keep her memories alive,’’ said Nirmala.