Janaki Ammal spent almost 60 years studying a variety of flowering plants?

Over the next few weeks, rows upon rows of pink flowers will be adorning the small town of Surrey, UK. They will beckon passers-by into stopping to smell them.

Many of these flowers have Indian roots, which is something that few people know.

They were planted in Kerala, an Indian state in the 19th century by EK Janaki ammal, a scientist.

Janaki spent almost 60 years studying a variety of flowering plants. He also reworked scientific classifications of many families of plants.

Dr Savithri Praetha Nair, who researched Janaki’s life for many years, says that Janaki wasn’t just a cell-geneticist. She was also a field biologist and a plant geoographer.

Dr Nair states that it is difficult to name any Indian male geneticist who used such cross-disciplinary methods in their research.

“She spoke about biodiversity as early in the 1930s.”

Janaki was an inspirational person who lived a long and fulfilling life. However, her contributions to science were not acknowledged for decades.

Janaki’s 125th birthday is also this year. Dr. Nair hopes to make a difference with a detailed biography. The book is titled Chromosome Woman Nomad Scientist: E.K. Janaki Ammal: A Life 1897-1984 was published earlier in November. It is the result of 16 years’ research on three continents.

Dr Nair also says it marks the start of “a grand plan” to recover stories about Indian women scientists.

She says that “up to now, published sources about women scientists have concentrated on Europe and North America,” and adds that “hardly anyone” includes women from Asia or other regions.

Janaki was a professional with many accomplishments, but her family says Janaki lived a life that was inspiring.

Geeta Doctor is a writer and Janaki grand-niece. “She thrived upon human possibility,” she says. “She was passionate about all things, totally liberated, and always focused on her work.”

Janaki was born 1897 in Tellichery (now Thalassery), in Kerala. EK Krishnan was her father and a high court subjudice in the Madras Presidency. This administrative subdivision is in British India.

She was raised in privilege in a large family who lived in Edam, which Ms Doctor describes as “the center of Janaki’s existence”.

Two-storey house featured a grand piano, sprawling library, spacious halls and large windows that overlook a well-tended garden.

Janaki was a member of Kerala’s Thiyya Community, which is socially backward according to the Hindu caste system.

However, Janaki lived at Edam House without prejudices, according to Ms Doctor.

She admits that she was still subject to caste discrimination throughout her life. But she didn’t allow it to stop her.

“If someone displeased her, she would just continue to move on.”

Janaki left school after she graduated and moved to Madras (now Chennai), for higher education.

She was a woman’s college teacher when, in 1924, she received a prestigious scholarship award from the University of Michigan.

Eight years later, she was the first Indian woman to receive a doctorate of botanical science.

Shortly after her return to India, she taught botany in her home country before joining the Sugarcane Breeding Station of Coimbatore.

Janaki was inspired to cross-breed sugarcane with other plants in order to produce a high-yielding crop that could thrive in India.

Dr Nair states that she was the first person who successfully crossed sugarcane with maize. This helped to understand the evolution of sugarcane.

The historian says that a particular hybrid she created was used to create many commercial crosses for the institute, but she wasn’t given credit.

Janaki, just after World War Two began in 1940, moved to London to continue her research at the John Innes Horticultural Institution.

These were her most transformative years in her career. She became the first woman scientist at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden in Wisley five years later.

This was also a time when hardships and hard work were a constant. Britain was at the forefront of the war, and food was heavily rationed.

Ms Doctor said that Janaki was not afraid. “When the bombs fell she would simply dive under the table or lie under the bed. It was all in one day.

She says that this attitude was also reflected in her personal life.

“[The children in her family] were equals, and she expected us all to follow her strict ways.”

There was also a sweeter side.

Ms. Doctor recalls her grand-aunt’s amazing books and taking them on wonderful picnics.

She was always full of stories, including about Kapok, the tiny black-striped palm squirrel she had brought in her sari in London to keep her company; and Timothy, her doll who fascinated everyone at Edam.

Ms. Doctor doesn’t put dates on these memories, as the past is just that. However, she vividly recalls Janaki’s stern personality and commanding presence; vibrant yellow saris; her “energetic but subtle” ways.

“She loved life in all its details and the great scheme of things. But she was also a meticulous scientist.”

Dr Nair claims that this was also apparent in her work. It was not about one major revelation but a series small-scale discoveries that contributed to “the grand history of human evolutionary evolution”.

“The fundamental questions she asked about plants and men were the ones she asked.”

Jawaharlal Naehru, India’s prime Minister in 1951, asked Janaki to come back to India and help restructure Botanical Survey of India.

Janaki, who was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, left immediately.

Dr Nair said that Janaki was not fully accepted by the institute because her male colleagues wouldn’t accept her commands.

She was in great pain, and could not fully recover. She fled to the countryside in search for new plants.

Janaki was the first woman to set out on a plant-hunting trip to Nepal in 1948. She said that Nepal was the most beautiful part of Asia botanically.

At the age of 80, she received a Padma Shri from the Indian government, which is one of the highest civilian honors. In 1984, seven years after her death, she was still alive.

Ms. Doctor said that Janaki didn’t get the recognition she deserved but she didn’t lose her passion for learning.


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