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Janaki Ammal: Pioneering Botanist who made Indian sugar sweeter

  • November 21, 2021
  • 3 min read
Janaki Ammal: Pioneering Botanist who made Indian sugar sweeter

E K Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) was perhaps the first Indian woman botanist of global stature. Hailing from Thalassery, she was behind the development of sweet sugarcane varieties that India could grow on its own lands instead of importing from abroad. In her 80s she was also an active voice to speak against the Silent Valley project. 

A renowned botanist and plant cytologist who made significant contributions to genetics, evolution, phytogeography, and ethnobotany, she was the tenth child in a blended family of 19 brothers. She was born on November 4, 1897.

In her late teenage years, Ammal decided to pursue a life of scholarship rather than one of matrimony. She received a bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras and an honors degree in botany from the Presidency College. Later, she won a scholarship in 1924 to pursue masters at University of Michigan.

She specialized in breeding interspecific hybrids (produced from plants of a different species) and intergeneric hybrids. 

In 1931, she received her doctorate, becoming the first Indian woman to receive that degree in botany in the U.S.

Later, she helped the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute in Coimbatore (now the Sugarcane Breeding Institute) to develop and sustain their own sweet sugarcane varieties rather than rely on imports from Indonesia, bolstering India’s sugarcane independence.

Moving to the UK, she worked closely with geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington and co-authored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is still a key text for plant scientists today. 

Ammal returned to India around 1950 at the request of Jawaharlal Nehru, and was appointed as the supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow.

But she was not happy with the Grow More Food Campaign policy of the government in the 1940s as it involved rampant deforestation, which was destroying India’s native plants.

This made her focus her work on preserving indigenous plants under threat. 

In 1955, as the only woman to attend an international symposium in Chicago, she spoke about the mass production of cereals and their cultural and environmental impact.

Towards the last decade of her life, she was an active part of the Save Silent Valley movement to stop a Hydro Electric Project that would flood the silent valley forest. She led the chromosomal survey of the Valley plants in an effort to preserve the botanical knowledge held there. 

The campaign was a success. The valley was declared a national park.

She was 87 when she died. 

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