Scientist who Sweetened the Sugarcane
Story of Janaki Ammal, the pioneering Botanist of India
Reigning supreme over the bitter realities of life, like own birth intoThiyya, a backward community during the early twentieth century in India, at a time when women venturing into scientific research was considered a taboo, Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) made seminal contributions to the botanical research in India. In the process, Janaki Ammal also became one of the first women scientists of modern India! Her investigations leading to the development of a sweeter strain of the sugarcane, which would thrive in Indian conditions and high yielding hybrid brinjals (Americaneggplant), significantly contributed to the betterment of lives of millions of farmers in India. Dedicated to lifelong research, Janaki Ammal used to say, “My work is what will survive”. How true! Her life prevailed through her contributions, which she made against all the odds on account of her humble birth and simple look.
Janaki was born to a middle-class family at Tellicherry, in Kerala. She was born to Diwan Bahadur Edavalath Kakkat Krishnan, a sub-judge of then the Madras Presidency of British colonial times. Her mother was Devi Kuruvayi, a humble village woman. She was the tenth child among thirteen siblings. Thiyyain those days was a matrilineal community, where women enjoyed greater freedom and privileges. They were encouraged to follow their interests and to engage in intellectual pursuits, such as fine arts. However, a woman venturing into the sphere of science was a rarity in those days. Janaki had great admiration for her father, who cherished a deeper love of nature. Hence, the choice of botany as her field of study and research came not as a surprise. The Library of her father was filled with a vast collection of books dealing with nature and wildlife, which included two books he himself wrote on the birds of the North Malabar region in Kerala, which became her playing zone as a child.
After the school years in Kerala, Janaki pursued her undergraduate in Botany at Queens Mary College, Chennai, and won an Honors degree from Presidency College there. Immediately after her graduation, Janaki Ammal took up a lectureship at the Women’s Christian College. After receiving the prestigious Brabour Scholarship, she set out to pursue her Masters from the University of Michigan, USA. Later on, she also made her doctoral research on NicandraPhysaloides, a flowering plant, and became the first woman ever to obtain a doctorate in Botany from the university in 1931.
Janaki did parallel research on improving varieties of brinjals by crossing different species. She developed a high-yielding variety of brinjal, which is known today as ‘Janaki Brinjal’ in her honor. After the doctoral research, Janaki returned to India to take up a professorship in Botany at Maharaja's College of Science, Trivandrum, Kerala. However, her preference to be a pure researcher prompted her to abandon her teaching job and to take charge as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore. Here, Janaki Ammal started her path-breaking research to develop sustainable and sweeter varieties of sugarcane suitable for Indian conditions.
This followed a decade-long (1940-1951) research stint in London at John Innes Horticultural Institution and at Royal Horticultural Society Wisley as a cytologist. During this time, Janaki Ammalco-authored the monumental work, Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants along with C. D. Darlington. Further, she also investigated the effects of the chemical Colchicine (C22H25NO6), when applied to the growing tip of young seedlings of woody plants. She observed that that procedure resulted in doubling of chromosomes and heavier textured leaves, with their flowers variable with thicker tepals, which helped them last longer. Janaki Ammal planted one such treated tree in the Battenston Hill at Wisley campus, which was later named after her, as Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
Janaki returned to India in 1951 at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, to take up the task of reorganizing the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She was at that time an elected Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences (1935) and of the Indian National Science Academy (1957), the first woman to receive these honors. She also served in many nationally important institutions. All through her life, Janaki Ammal researched botanical questions related to the Indian subcontinent, ranging from medicinal plants in Wayanad in southern Kerala and sustainable agriculture at high altitudes of Ladakh. She passed away in 1984, at the age of 87, while working in her research lab at Maduravoyal, in Chennai. As stated in her obituary, “She was devoted to her studies and research until the end of her life”.
A Chaste Life
Indian women of the early twentieth century were expected to marry at an early age and the marriages were supposed to be pre-arranged ones. Janaki also had social pressure to get married to her first cousin, as stipulated by the custom of the day. But Janaki Ammal chose a celibate life, absorbed in research and scholarship, over the marriage!
As Geeta Doctor, Janaki’s niece writes: “Her statuesque presence reminded people of a Buddhist lady monk. Like certain Buddhist orders, she took a vow of chastity, austerity, and silence for herself, limiting her needs to the barest minimum.”
In this manner, Janaki Ammal belonged to a class of creative minds, Henry David Thoreau, The Wright brothers, Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla, who observed the vow of chastity and did not even felt the need to get married. The chaste life helped her to focus on the essentials of life and not to bother much about the trivial things of life.
A Simple Life
Dr. Ammal was thoroughly Indian in attire and habits and led a Gandhian way of life. She appreciated manual labor and was often seen cleaning the streets of the BSI office with a long broom, as her colleagues could recollect.
Her simplicity was expressed not only in her attire but also in her thoughts and words. She preferred to be a quiet, unassuming, and unobtrusive person. At the same time, she was an active and dynamic colleague to work with.
Her physical needs were few and she was unostentatious and modest to the core. A person of clean habits, Janaki Ammal did not suffer from any serious health problems. She was active throughout her life, which helped her stay healthy.
A Mind without Fear
From her childhood, Janaki developed a fearless mind and was prepared to express her opinions, especially when it came to choosing her life and career. Fearless choices remained a labyrinth to her entire life and career. During her research work in Chennai, her male colleagues tried to discredit her status as a single woman from a caste considered backward. Her reaction was to quit the job and to go abroad and continue her researches! Eventually, she emerged as one of the most prominent scientists of her time. It was her sweetest revenge against all those who imposed caste and gender discrimination on her!
As she moved to England, it was the time of the Second World war. German planes were bombing London. However, undeterred by these eventualities, she carried on her research. Her colleagues recollected how Dr. Ammal would dive under her bed during the night bombings and continue with the research work the next day after brushing the broken glass off the shelves. A brave heart to the core! No caste nor bomb could interrupt her life or work!
Flexible with a Focus
Dr. Ammal was endowed with extraordinary courage to make choices and the versatility to change course and adapt where and when required, right from her childhood. At the same time, she kept a perfect focus for her life, as a person who has a mission in life.
Her passion for plants remained the singular goal, purpose, and mission of her life, to which she remained faithful till the end of her life. Crop plants, garden plants, plantation crops, medicinal plants, plants in the wild, and plants of the tribals-- all species were of interest to her.
During her last years, Janaki’s main interest had been the rearing of a large family of cats and kittens. It is written that she had even discovered and tracked down the subtle differentiations in the characteristics of her beloved kittens as an expert geneticist!
A Life with/for Nature
As a botanist, Dr. Ammal was also a friend of nature. Most of her time, she spent in nature. She was also prepared to fight for the conservation of nature when the times demanded it from her. We find Dr. Ammal in the focal point of the struggle against building of a hydro-power dam across the river Kunthipuzha in Kerala’s Silent Valley, an ecological hotspot and abode of extremely rare and precious botanical species. Janaki Ammal was a driving force for this people's movement, which saved a pristine moist evergreen forests of Kerala!