The Indian Botanist with a Flower to Her Name

May 3, 2019 0


The superstars of Botany are seldom discussed in popular media. It is these people who painstakingly work in labs to evolve plant varieties to improve our medicine, chemicals, food supplies and building materials. One such pioneering botanist is Janaki Ammal, one of world’s leading Cytogeneticist. Such has been her influence in the field of Botany that a flower- Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal has been named after her.

Born in 1897 in Thalassery, Kerala, as tenth of her thirteen siblings, Janaki was a brilliant student which was further reinforced by progressive views on women education in her family. Janaki’s father Deewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was sub-judge of the Madras Presidency and maintained a well stocked library on natural sciences. He authored two books on birds of the North Malabar region. Incidentally Janaki’s brothers were good cricketers and would regularly feature in the Thalassery XI.

Janaki obtained the bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, and an honours degree in botany from Presidency College in 1921. Given her brilliant academic track record, Janaki went to University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar for a Masters degree in Botany and subsequently a Phd in 1931, making her the first Indian women to get a Phd in Botany in the United States. At Michigan she developed a variety of Brinjal known as the “Janaki Brinjal”. Her thesis titled “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides” was published in 1932. Nicandra Physaloides is a plant with violet bell shaped flowers.

On return to India, she did a stint as a professor of botany at the Maharaja Science College, Trivandrum and subsequently joined the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore. Here her work lead to improvement in sugar content of indigenous sugar cane specie making significant contribution to economic returns on sugarcane cultivation in India.

During World War II , Janaki worked as a Cytologist at the Joh Innes Horticultural Institution, London. After the war she shifted to Royal Horticultural Institution in London. It is here she along with the world renowned CN Darlington published the seminal work ‘ Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’.

At the Royal Horticulture Society, she worked on Magnolia, and to this day the society campus has the magnolia shrubs she planted. Among them are small variety flowers named after her – ‘Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal’. The beautiful Magnolia blooms seen today on the Battleston Hill near Wisley are from seedlings treated by Dr Janaki Ammal.

Janaki relocated to India in 1951 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her. She revamped the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) and served as the Officer on Special Duty in Calcutta in 1954. Such was her zeal for perfection and order that Dr Janaki would be seen many a times with a long broom cleaning the streets outside the BSI office on Chowringhee Lane.

She went on to serve the Government of India in various other capacities over the ensuing years, including heading the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. During the later part of her career, she worked for a while at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay before moving to Madras in 1970 where she was named an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. She lived and worked in the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras until her demise in February 1984.

We at Flower Valley love flowers and with everyone associated with them. We pay tribute to this outstanding botanist who did path breaking work on plants and flowers. We can well imagine the Magnolia blooms nodding on the Battleston Hill on Wisley which Dr Janaki helped plant.

Flower Valley also feels proud of Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal, the little white flower named after such a towering academician.

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