Janaki Ammal And The Chromosome Atlas Of Cultivated Plants

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A young Janaki Ammal (Image: John Innes Archives/ Public Domain)
The cytogeneticist Janaki Ammal catalogued India's plants, and modified Indian sugarcane to make it sweeter.

There are two sides to scientists such as Janaki Ammal: One is personal – the interplay of caste and race that dominated their childhood and career. The other is empirical; nearly 60 years spent devoted to academia and research in the field of botany.

Janaki is the reason Indian sugar is as sweet as it is; the driving forcing behind the Botanical Survey of India’s reorganisation (leading to the documentation of India’s countless and diverse plant varieties) and the name behind the flower Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.

Janaki’s story was much neglected after her death in 1984. But recent efforts by the Botanical Survey of India and other writers have brought her back into the public imagination. The work of Vinita Damodaran of the University of Sussex provides some details into Janaki’s life and times.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born in Telicherry, Kerala; the tenth child of E.K Krishnan and Devayani. They were of the Thiya community, now listed as an Other Backward Class. But what attracted stigma was not necessarily their caste – but the colour of their skin. Devayani was the daughter of John Child Hannyngton, an Irish civil servant in India. In a time where British officials were discouraged from marrying Indian women, Hannyngton maintained cursory links to his ‘illegitimate’ Indian family but was largely hands-off. He remained in England while they remained in Telicherry.

The house they lived in was”Edathil”, by the sea. Their father, E.K. Krishnan, married Devyani after the death of his first wife. They had a westernized childhood, practising snipe hunting and studying Roman history in school. Indeed, many in the region embraced Western education as a means of escaping caste deprivations.

Many of Janaki’s peers, children of white officials and Indian mothers, were seen as ‘valla thiyas’ and found it difficult to get married. Janaki wanted none of that – she picked the long road of scientific advancement.

Janaki moved to Madras after school and obtained a Bachelors degree from Queen Mary’s College and an Honours degree in Botany from Presidency College in 1921. She taught for a while, then as a Barbour Scholar obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1925.

In 1931, she received a DSc (Doctorate in Science) from Michigan, making her one of the first Indian women to achieve this qualification. She returned and later joined the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore.

Why was there an institute dedicated to the study of sugarcane breeding? At the time, Indian sugar was scarcely as sweet as its counterparts in the rest of the world. Papa New Guinea, in particular, was known for its sugarcane, then the world’s sweetest. India even imported sugar from this country, prompting the freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya to suggest research into sweetening Indian varieties of sugarcane like S. spontaneum. C.A. Barber and T.S. Venkataraman led the centre, crossing Indian breeds with New Guinean ones. Janaki brought her expertise in cytogenetics to the table; adding to the understanding of sugarcane breeding and genetics. Soon after, a perfect cross was made possible. Between 1930 and 1935, sugarcane production doubled in India.

By now, she had built up a friendship with C.D. Darlington – with whom she formed a deep connection. The Bodleian Library at Oxford preserves her 50-years of correspondence with Darlington. He was her mentor in a world where female scientists were oft-ignored if they had no male recommendation.

In 1939, she travelled to the United Kingdom to attend a conference in Edinburgh, which timed with the outbreak of World War II. She spent the next five years in Britain, where she joined Darlington at the John Innes Institutes at Norwich.

Her time in India had been marked by gender politics at the Sugarcane Institute. Her work was frequently neglected by male colleagues who were needlessly averse to a woman making an achievement in the field. One pet project of hers was a unique cross of the Sacchurum-Zea, which took 30 years before being internationally recognized. When recognition came, she made a note of the two who had doubted her cross in the past:

Gates told Venkatraman he doubted the cross — the Blighter!

With Indian independence, Janaki found herself on a plane with Jawaharlal Nehru on her way back from Britain. Nehru convinced her to be a part of India’s new mission for scientific temperament. She helped reorganise the Botanical Survey of India and worked for the Government in various capacities at the Central Botanical Library in Allahabad, the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and even at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Ultimately, she settled in Madras in 1970 and was an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras.

Image source: John Innes Archives/ Public Domain

Through her life, her seminal work was the ‘The chromosome atlas of cultivated plants’, which she co-authored with C.D. Darlington. It made her an internationally-recognised expert on plant distributions and human impact on such flora. Her work was unique in that she included local tribal perspectives on medicine – recognising that indigenous communities had a deeper understanding of local plants than the urban-oriented model of Indian science that was dominant.

Though she worked for the Government, one of her pet peeves was the wanton destruction of forests in the post-independent era, in the name of growing more food. At the time, she wrote:

I went 37 miles from Shillong in search of the only tree of Magnolia griffithii in that part of Assam and found that it had been burnt down.

She was a prominent voice during the protests against the proposed flooding of the Silent Valley national park in the 1970s, finding common cause with Dr M.S. Swaminathan. She wrote to Darlington at the time, saying:

My dear Cyril, I am about to start a daring feat. I have made up my mind to make a chromosome survey of the forest trees of the ‘Silent Valley’ which is about to be made into a lake by letting in the waters of the river Kunthi.

Her efforts paid off, as evident by the next letter:

You will be pleased to know that the Kerala government has been forced to give up destroying the Silent Valley. As the oldest forest of India, if not the world, we have set up a project to the Indian government to make a genetic study of the trees … we will bring some of the plants and grow them in our ethnobotanical garden — my ethnobotanical garden at Shoranur, Kerala, which has a climate similar to the valley — being only some 40 miles or so away. I will be leaving for Jammu on the 13th and will run up to the Dehra Dun Forest research Institute for seeds of the genera of plants of the valley … so that I can make a beginning straight away.

Through the combined efforts of numerous activists, the project was cancelled. In 1977, she received the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. To her family, she was an inspiring and modest figure. Geeta Doctor, her niece, remembered her as a woman who kept her personal life aside in favour of her work. As she told her, “My work is what will survive.” In a field where achievement need not be distinguished by gender, Janaki aimed for the top, reached it and left behind a quiet but striking presence in her field.

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