Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal is considered a pioneer in Botany who worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics and phytogeography.
Kakkat Janaki Ammal was one of the first women to receive a PhD from the University of Michigan.
In the 1930s, most Indian women didn’t make it past high school. But Janaki didn’t just obtain a PhD at one of the world’s finest universities, she also made tremendous contributions to the field of botany and plant cytology.
This is a story of a phenomenal Indian woman who fought her way through an ultra-conservative society to fulfil her academic dreams.
Kakkat Janaki Amma was born in Thalassery in Kerala on November 4, 1897. She was the daughter of Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan who was a sub-judge in what was then the Madras Presidency.
Her father had a keen interest in the natural sciences and botany. He used to correspond regularly with scholars and maintains descriptive notes about his developing garden.
Dewan Bahadur’s love for learning and curiosity about botany was something he would pass on to little Janaki.
Dewan had 19 children — six from his first wife, Sharada, and thirteen from the second, Deviammal. The tenth of these children was Janaki Ammal.
Janaki completed her schooling in Thalassery(Tellicherry those days) and moved to Madras.
She received her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College and her Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency College in 1921.
She received the prestigious Barbour scholarship from the University of Michigan in the USA, for her extraordinary academics.
Janaki left for the University of Michigan and in 1925 she received her Master’s degree in Botany.
At the University of Michigan, Janaki focused on plant cytology,the study of genetic composition and patterns of gene expression in plants.
During her research she specialized in breeding interspecific hybrids and intergeneric hybrids.
She then came back to India for some time. After a few years, she returned to the University of Michigan as an Oriental Barbour Fellow. She obtained a PhD in 1931. Her thesis was titled “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides”.
After receiving her honours from Presidency College, in 1921, she started teaching at Women’s Christian College.
She discontinued her job and pursued her Master’s degree. After completing her Master degree program she returned to India to work as a professor in the Women’s Christian College in Madras for a few years.
After completing her PhD, she became Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum. She taught there for two years between 1932 and 1934.
Then, she joined Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore. During that time the sweetest sugar was at Papua New Guinea and India imported it from Southeast Asia.
Janaki took it as a challenge to improve the quality of sugarcanes in India.
After years of research, she was able to create a high yielding strain of the sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. Her research helped other scientists to analyse the geographical distributions of sugarcane across India, and to establish that elite variety of sugarcane in India.
Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman founded the Indian Academy of Science in 1935. He selected Janaki Ammal as a research fellow in its very first year.
Back then in India, Janaki’s caste was considered backwards and was creating irreconcilable problems for Janaki among her peers at Coimbatore.
Facing caste and gender discrimination, Janaki left Coimbatore and joined Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist in London, England.
She worked there from 1940 to 1945, she faced the tragedy of World War 2 in London.
Later, talking about the experience with her friends, the courageous woman described how she used to hide under her bed during bombing from German fighter planes.
The Royal Horticultural Society invited Janaki Ammal to join them as a cytologist at their campus at Winsley, near Kew Gardens. There she met some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and botanists in the world.
In 1945, she co-authored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with biologist CD Darlington, a close friend and mentor for the greater part of her life.
At The Royal Horticultural Society, she studied the botanical use of colchicine(a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number) which results in larger and quicker growing plants.
One of her successful results was Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal, a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens., which was named after Janaki Ammal.
In 1951, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her to return to India and take responsibility for the newly formed Botanical Survey of India (BSI).
She accepted the prime minister’s offer and was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty to the BSI.
Her colleagues had shared the stories, How Janaki would take a long broom and clean the streets outside the Botanical Survey of India’s Calcutta office.
Janaki also loved travelling and she also travelled to some of the most remote areas of the country in search of the plant lore of the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent.
She visited areas with extreme climate conditions like Ladakh to explore methods of sustainable agriculture at high altitudes.
She has always been an ardent environmental activist too.
Janaki was very down to earth even after reaching the pinnacle of success, she believed in leading a very simple lifestyle she said, “My work will survive”.
She led a life only few women could dream. She had that courage to follow her dreams and lived an extraordinary life that indeed stands as an inspiration to many of us.
Awards and Recognitions
In an Indian Currents Magazine article published on 1st January, 2000. Janaki Ammal was mentioned among Indian Americans of the century.
EK Janaki Ammal was the first Indian woman to obtain a PhD in botany in the U.S.in 1931 and remains one of the very few Asian women to be conferred a DSc (honoris causa), by the University of Michigan.
Janaki Ammal was elected as fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935, and a fellow of the National Science Academy in 1957.
The University of Michigan conferred an honorary LL.D. on her in 1956 in recognition of her contributions in the field of botany and cytogenetics.
Janaki Ammal received the prestigious Padma Shri in 1977.
The National Award of Taxonomy was instituted in Janaki Ammal’s name in 2000 by The Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India.
Two awards were instituted in Janaki Ammal’s name in 1999 by the Government of India namely
1. EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant Taxonomy and
2. EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Animal Taxonomy.
There is a herbarium in Jammutawi with over 25000 plant species named after EK Janaki Ammal.
The John Innes Centre offers a scholarship program to PhD students from developing countries like India and Africa in Janaki Ammal’s name.
Janaki Ammal died by natural death on 7 February 1984 in Maduravoyal, Chennai at the age of 86.
Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal is an Indian scientist who is considered as a pioneer in Botany and worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics and phytogeography.