Not many people can claim to have sweetened the lives of others even after their death. An exception to this is Dr. Janaki Ammal, a renowned botanist who amongst her other contributions helped revolutionize the Indian sugar industry by breeding the finest and sweetest sugarcanes. Janaki was born in a mixed race thiya family in the Indian state of Kerala, and was the tenth child in a family of 19 brothers and sisters. In the times when most girls married young and didn’t even make it past high school, Janaki defied all traditions by completing her primary school at the Sacred Heart Convent in Thalassery, followed by a Bachelor’s degree at the Queen Mary’s College, Madras (Chennai). She then earned an Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency college (1921) and started teaching at the Women’s Christian College. During this time, Janaki received the prestigious Barbour scholarship and she left for the University of Michigan to obtain a Master’s degree, choosing academics over a marriage planned to her first cousin.
Interestingly, on her arrival in the United States Janaki was detained to clear her immigration status but owing to her looks, attire, and demeanor she was mistaken for an Indian princess and let through. At the University of Michigan, she studied plant cytology and specialized in breeding interspecific hybrids (produced from plants of a different species) and intergeneric hybrids (plants of a different genera within the same family). In 1925, Ammal earned a Masters of Science and in 1931, she received her doctorate, becoming the first Indian woman to receive a degree in botany from the U.S. Her thesis was titled “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides”.
On her return to India, Janaki was appointed a professor of botany at the Maharaja College of Science, Trivandrum (1932-1934). She later joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station in Coimbatore (1934-1939) which was set up in order to improve India’s indigenous varieties. India, at that time, was importing some of the sweetest sugarcane (Saccharaum officianarum) varieties from Southeast Asia. Janaki’s expertise in cytogenetics and her research on polyploidy of sugarcane was instrumental in developing high yielding sweet sugarcane suitable for Indian climatic conditions. She also helped analyze the geographical distribution of sugarcane in India and validate the Indian origin of the S. Spontaneum variety of sugarcane. She also created many intergeneric hybrids by crossing various grasses: Saccharum-Zea, Saccharum-Erianthus, Saccharum-Imperata and Saccharum-Sorghum. Her thorough investigation on chromosomes and ploidy helped understand the evolution of many species and varieties.
She was then selected as the research fellow for the Indian Academy of Sciences (Founder- C. V. Raman) in its very first year. Having faced gender and caste based discrimination, she left to join John Innes Horticultural Institute in London as an assistant cytologist working alongside C.D. Darlington in a long-term collaboration. She worked there from 1940-1945, the period of WW-II, and described how she would hide under the bed during the night bombings and continue with her research during the day after having cleared the broken glass off the shelves. This collaboration resulted in publication of the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated plants (1945), an extensive record of chromosome numbers of nearly 10,000 plant species. Impressed by her work, she was then invited by the Royal Horiculture Society to work as a cytologist at Wisley (near Kew Gardens). Here she evaluated the use of colchicine in inducing polyploidy in plants. Owing to her work at the Society on the Magnolias and the shrub she planted, there is still a variety named after her: Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
After her successful stint abroad, Janaki returned to India and was appointed as the officer on special duty to the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) on a personal invitation from the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951. She was to reorganize the BSI and improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture in this role. Janaki continued to serve 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 and Kashmir. She briefly worked at BARC, Trombay and then joined as an Emeritus Scientist at the University of Madras. She continued working on different genera including Datura, Mentha, Solanum, Cymbopogon, Dioscorea and published the original findings of her research focusing on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. Though cytology was Janaki’s expertise, her career encompassed genetics, evolution, phytogeography and ethnobotany. She was an advocate of the environment and protested against the building of a hydro-power plant on the river Kunthipuzha, in Kerala that would have submerged the forests.
For her exemplary contribution to science in India, Dr Janaki Ammal was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1977. There is a herbarium with over 25000 plant species in Jammutawi named after Janaki Ammal. The John Innes Centre in England chose to honor Janaki by launching a new scholarship for post-graduate students from developing countries in her name. Two Indian plant breeders developed a new rose variety named E.K. Janaki Ammal as a tribute to her. In spite of her great achievements and the honors bestowed upon her, the name Janaki Ammal seems lost in the pages of history books; her work nevertheless survives. Janaki Ammal remains an extraordinary woman ahead of her times who broke gender, caste, and social barriers and led the way for others to follow.