Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni: The Story Of An Indian Paleobotanist

Professor Birbal Sahni FRS was an Indian paleobotanist, a branch of botany that deals with the biological reconstruction of past environments and identification of plants that remain from geological contexts. 

He was a scholar and well acclaimed in the field of science all over the world. He made a significant contribution in the field of Geology and Archeology.

Early Life

He was born on November 14, 1891 at Bhera, a small town in West Punjab which is now in Pakistan. 

Birbal was the third child of Ishwar Devi and the pioneer Indian meteorologist and scientist Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni.

Ruchi Ram Sahni was a professor of Chemistry at Lahore Government College. He studied Chemistry at Manchester and worked with great scientists like Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr.

Birbal Sahni’s grandfather owned a banking business and conducted amateur research in chemistry and was the first person to influence him in the world of science. 

Every summer Birbal Sahni’s father used to take him on long treks in the Himalayan mountain range as he had a great passion for outdoor life and trekking. 

From Pathankot to the Rohtang Pass, Kalka to Chini(Indo-Tibet Road), Narkanda, Amarnath, Rampur, Bushahr, Kilba, Buranpas, Machoi Glacier and Zojila Pass etc  between 1907 and 1911 was greatly cherished by him.

Those expeditions gave him a wide overview of the paleobotanical and geological problems. That planted the seed of paleobotany in his mind and helped him to realise his passion. 

He married Ms Savitri, the daughter of Mr. Sundar Das Suri. She was his strength and encouragement in all walks of life. 


Birla Sahni’s early education was at Lahore, from the Mission and Central Model schools later at the Government College. 

He was indeed an exceptional student and achieved many awards and academic distinctions during his student life. This includes standing First in the Sanskrit language in matriculation, 

Securing a district level award in intermediate science. 

He completed his graduation from Punjab University (now in Pakistan) in the year 1911.

Birbal followed his brothers to England and graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1914. He later studied under Albert Charles Seward and was awarded the D.Sc. degree of the University of London in 1919.

He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science for his research in the field of palaeobotany. Birbal also secured first class in part-1 of the natural science tripos and accomplished part-2 of the tripos in 1915. 


Sahni then joined Professor Seward to work on a revision of Indian Gondwana plants. 

In the year 1919, he briefly worked with the german plant morphologist Karl Ritter Von Goebel in Munich 

After returning from London he held faculty positions at Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U.), Varanasi and Punjab University, Punjab. 

Later in the year 1921, he joined Lucknow University as a professor of Botany at the age of 30 later he established the Geology Department and was HOD of both the departments.  

The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow
The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow (Source)

Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany

In September 1948, the Government of the United Provinces gifted a piece of land to Birbal, next to Lucknow University. He made a comprehensive plan for building his Institution.

He founded what is now The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow in 1946

Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India laid the foundation stone on 3rd April 1949.

Sahni in his welcome speech said: “The foundation stone symbolizes: A great fact of the antiquity of plant life on the globe, the intellect of man ever trying to bring that fact more and more clearly to light, revealing different stages not only in the evolution of the plant kingdom in more and more orderly and understandable sequence but also the evolution of his own poor understanding of this truth”. 

The very construction of it, the flaws and imperfections in its entire makeup, the labour that has gone into its preparation are all but symbols of our imperfect and helpless efforts at constructing something new, something worthwhile.”

Unfortunately he died just after a week of laying the foundation stone and was not able to live enough to cherish his dream. 


Professor Sahni received numerous awards and recognitions for his significant contributions in the field of geology and palaeobotany.

He received the
1. Barclay Medal of Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1936
2. The Nelson Wright Medal of the Numismatic Society of India in 1945
3. Sir C. R. Reddy National prize in 1947.

The University of Cambridge had recognized his research and awarded a Sc. D. in 1929. American Academy of Arts and Science elected him as its foreign honorary member in 1948. 


He was elected a fellow member of the Geological Society of Great Britain. He also served as the editorial board of the Botanical Journal Chronica Botanica

In 1936 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London(FRS) highest British Scientific honour. 

In 1940, Birbal was general President of the Indian Science Congress.

He was elected vice president of the 5th and 6th International Botanical Congress in 1930 and 1935 held at Cambridge and Amsterdam respectively.

He was a founding member of the fellow of the National Institute of Science Academy (now Indian Science Academy, New Delhi).

However, in 1950 destiny prevented him to preside as honorary president in the International Botanical Congress, held in Stockholm.   


Birbal Sahni died on 10, April 1949 afflicted with cerebral thrombosis at Lucknow. 

When he was lying on his death-bed, his last thoughts were not for him or for his family but for the institute he recently founded.

He expressed his intense feeling to his wife just before passing to eternal sleep and his last words were, nourish the institute

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