Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal - An Introduction
E K Janaki Ammal was a renowned botanist and plant
cytologist who made significant contributions to genetics,
evolution, phytogeography and ethnobotany. This brief biographical
sketch describes her life and work.
Life - Janaki Ammal was born in Tellichery, Kerala, in a cultured
middle class family on 4th November 1897. Ammal’s father was
a sub-judge in whatwas then the Madras Presidency. She had six
brothers and five sisters.After schooling inTellichery, shemoved
to Madras where she obtained the Bachelor’s degree fromQueen
Mary’s College and her Honours degree in Botany from the
Presidency College in 1921. She then taught at the Women’s
ChristianCollege (WCC),Madras (nowChennai),with a sojourn
as aBarbour Scholar at theUniversity of Michigan in USA where
she obtained her Master’s degree in 1925. Returning to India, she
continued to teach at theWCC, butwent toMichigan again as the
first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc in
1931. On her return, she became Professor of Botany at the
Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum and taught there
From 1934–1939 she worked as Geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore. She then left for England and
during 1940–45 she worked as Assistant Cytologist at the John
InnesHorticultural Institution in London, and as Cytologist at the
Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley during 1945–51. Invited
by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to accept
an assignment as Special Officer to reorganize the Botanical
Survey of India (BSI), she returned to India in 1951. From then
on, besides the reorganization of the BSI, Ammal continued to be
in the service of the Government of India in various capacities including heading the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad
and Officer on Special duty at the Regional Research Laboratory
in Jammu andKashmir. Sheworked for a brief spell at the Bhabha
Atomic Research Centre at Trombay and then settled down in
Madras in November 1970, working as an Emeritus Scientist at
the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. She lived and worked in the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras until her demise in February 1984.
Ammal was elected Fellowof the Indian Academy of Sciences in
1935 (the year itwas founded bySirCVRaman) and of the Indian
National Science Academy in 1957. The University of Michigan
conferred an honorary LLD on her in 1956. The Government of
India conferred the Padma Sri on her in 1957 and theMinistry of
Environment and Forestry instituted the National Award of Taxonomy
in her name in 2000.
Work - Only Ammal can endow the above ‘cradle to cremation’ recount
with flesh and blood. However, one can look at the course of her
life and work in the context of her times, of her nature and
upbringing, of challenges and opportunities before her, and of her
view of life and work reflected in her own life and work.
I met and was introduced to Ammal for the first time in July, 1950
at the International Botanical Congress in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Indian participants at the Congress were entertained by the
Indian ambassadorRKNehru and hiswife at the Indian Embassy. Besides Ammal, the invitees included F R Bharucha, K A
Chowdhury, P Maheshwari, V Puri, T S Sadasivan, Savithri
Sahni, J Venkateswarlu, and myself. I saw Ammal again in
January 1951, this time at India House in London at a reception
arranged by the Indian High Commission to meet the then Prime
Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had come for the
Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. Recognizing me,
Ammal very kindly introduced me to the Prime Minister.
Ammal was then working at Wisley on the cytogenetics of
Magnolia, as I understood fromher. After her return to India Imet
her at scientific meetings where she was held in high esteem.
Ammal came to the celebration of the Silver Jubilee of the
National Institute of Sciences of India (now the Indian National
Science Academy) at Delhi on 30 December, 1960 at which, by a
coincidence, having been elected that year, I was asked to formally
sign the Register of Fellows in the presence of the Prime
Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the group photograph taken then,
it is noteworthy that Ammal was the only lady. During the years
I headed the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany inMadras, we
hadAmmal with us throughout as an Emeritus Scientist. Shewas
a quiet, unassuming, and unobtrusive but active and dynamic
colleague, bearing her greatness lightly. She was verymuch a part
of the CAS in Botany family.
In the matrilineal families in Kerala, women normally enjoyed
freedom and privileges much more than in many other parts of
India. In enlightened families such as Ammal’s, girls were encouraged
to engage in intellectual pursuits and in fine arts. Ammal must have been born with a passion for plants to have
chosen to study Botany and to have gone to Madras to do so.
Under the influenceof teachers at the PresidencyCollege,Ammal’s
passion sharpened her love of nature and the study of plants in
their natural environment. Her life reflects her experiments in
settling for a career and, more importantly, for a mission. First,
she took to teaching. Not content, she took to research. Her two
innings in Michigan were crucial in determining the choice of her
specialization in plant sciences: she chose cytology which in
those formative years of the science was concerned primarily
with the nucleus and the chromosomes.
The early decades of the last century saw a great deal of pioneering
work in genetics, notably on wheat and on sugarcane. At the
Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore, C A Barber and T S
Venkataraman initiated research in sugarcane breeding.
Venkataraman developed the internationally famous Coimbatore canes such as Co 419 with qualities of drought- and diseaseresistance.
The Co varieties were grown in all parts of India and
were also preferred for cultivation in other countries where
sugarcane was an important crop. It was in this scenario that
Ammal quit her teaching position in Trivandrum and joined the
Institute at Coimbatore. Ammal made several intergeneric hybrids: Saccharum x Zea, Saccharum x Erianthus, Saccharum x
Imperata and Saccharum x Sorghum. Ammal’s pioneering work
at the Institute on the cytogenetics of Saccharum officinarum
(sugarcane) and interspecific and intergeneric hybrids involving
sugarcane and related grass species and genera such as Bambusa
(bamboo) is epochal. But that was just the beginning of a life in
science well lived.
During the years (1939-1950) she spent in England, she did
chromosome studies of awide range of garden plants.Her studies
on chromosome numbers and ploidy inmany cases threw light on
the evolution of species and varieties. The Chromosome Atlas of
Cultivated Plants which she wrote jointly with CDDarlington in
1945 was a compilation that incorporated much of her own work
on the many species on which she worked. The focus on polyploidy
and evolution of plants which effervesced then, continued
on her return to India and Ammal worked on some of the most
important genera : Solanum, Datura, Mentha, Cymbopogon and
Dioscorea, besides a range of medicinal and other plants too
many for mention here. Ammal was an original thinker and she
attributed the higher rate of plant speciation in the cold and humid
northeast Himalayas as compared to the cold and dry northwest
Himalayas to polyploidy. Also, according to her, the confluence
of Chinese and Malayan elements in the flora of northeast India
led to natural hybridization between these and the native flora in
this region, contributing further to plant diversification.
Following her retirement, Ammal continued to work unabated,
focussing special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobatany.
She continued to publish original findings of her research. In the Centre forAdvanced Study Field Laboratorywhere she lived and worked she developed a garden of medicinal plants with great
zeal and dedication. Though cytology was her forte all through,
her work embraced genetics, evolution, phytogeography and
A View of Her Life and Work -
Viewing her life and her work, I would say this of Ammal: From
a young age, she was endowed with the courage to make choices
and the versatility to change course and adapt where and when
required. With her passion for plants, she defined for herself her
goals and purpose, and her mission in life. Having done that, she
kept hermission above everything else and stuck to it till the end.
Crop plants, garden plants, plantation crops, medicinal plants,
plants in the wild and plants of the tribals – all species were
interesting to her. She just worked on what was on hand and
within reach. And, there was much that was on hand and within
reach. Her familiarity with British plants was matched by her
familiarity with tropical species.
She led a simple life of total dedication to hermission, remaining
single. Her physical needs were few and she was unostentatious
andmodest to the core.Aperson of clean habits, I believe Ammal
did not suffer from any serious health problems. Having been
active throughout was her strength. Her initial needs and her
education taken care of by her parents, she taught and worked.
With a scholarship or fellowship or a scientist-position, she
carved out for herself a career of her own, partly abroad and partly
in India. To have spent the cruel war years in an alien country in
the study of garden plants needed courage of a special kind.When
war clouds were on the western horizon to be battered by what
Winston Churchill called the “gathering storm,” why did Ammal
leave her country to take up a position in Britain? Did she have
any support? My conjecture is that India’s freedom fighter in
Britain, Krishna Menon, only a year older to her, and her contemporary
inTellichery and at the PresidencyCollege,Madras, could
have been instrumental.Menon was also probably the link to her acquaintancewith India’s first PrimeMinister – I do not know for
Ammal was thoroughly Indian in attire and habits, and Gandhian in her lifestyle. he was too selfless to seek favours or the
limelight and yet honours came to her unsought, something that is
true ofmany greatwomen andmen. The honorary LLD which the
University of Michigan conferred on Ammal in 1956 in recognition
of her contributions to botany and cytogenetics said: Blessed
with the ability to make painstaking and accurate observations,
she and her patient endeavours stand as a model for serious and
dedicated scientific workers. When required, she did not shirk
fighting for a cause or for a right. Her integrity and professional
ethics are beyond doubt. She lived up to her own definition of
greatnesswhich combined virtue in life and passion in the pursuit
of her science. There is thusmuch for us to emulate in her life and
S Kedharnath, Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal (1897–1984)
BiographicalMemoirs of Fellows of the Indian National Science
Academy, 13, pp.90–101, with portrait, 1988.
P Maheshwari and R N Kapil, Fifty Years of Science in India.
Progress of Botany, Indian Science Congress Association,
Calcutta, pp.110, 118, 1963.