A simple way to describe Janaki Ammal would be to call her the sugar lady of India. She was the one who created a high-yielding strain of sugarcane. But her contribution to botany and allied fields were numerous and far more diverse than her initial contribution to sugarcane cultivation. She is remembered for her pioneering work on plant cells.
She was instrumental on return from England in spurring India to protect its unparalleled biodiversity. For she was among the diverse group of scientists and environmentalists who backed the movement that stopped the destruction of the Silent Valley in the Indian state of Kerala.
India’s First Botanist
But Janaki Ammal remains famous as the first botanist from the Indian subcontinent, and even Asia, who gained an international reputation through her works. Several hybrid crops developed by her are still cultivated today. She also turned into a powerful supporter for the protection of the natural flora of the Indian subcontinent and was lauded for her indigenous approach to environmental issues.
Born in 1897 she passed out as a botanist from Presidency College in Chennai, then Madras. It was a time when Indian women were dissuaded from higher studies, with literacy among Indian women even less than a percent.
In 1924, she joined the University of Michigan on a scholarship where she joined Barbour College’s botany department. Here she studied plant cytology, outlines of gene manifestation, and genetic composition among plants.
Her specialization was breeding hybrids between plants of different species, known as interspecific hybrids, and breeding plants of different genera but in the identical family, known as intergeneric hybrids. She used this expertise to help the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore, then known as the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute, to develop its variety of sugarcane that matched the sweetness of varieties imported from Indonesia.
Her research led to the development of several varieties of sugar cane.
Her collaboration with noted eugenicist and geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington led to the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, still leading research on plants. This book recorded chromosome numbers of around 100,000 varieties of plants that helped shed light on the evolutionary and breeding patterns of diverse botanical groups.
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She joined the Royal Horticultural Society in 1946. Her research led to the creation of a new magnolia shrub, the Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal, a flower with purple stamens and bright white petals. The garden on Battleston Hill, Wisley, still witnesses its bloom every spring.
Janaki Ammal return to India turned her from a botanist to an environmentalist
Immediately before and after independence, India faced numerous famines that killed millions. On the appeal of the prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Janaki Ammal returned to India. Janaki Ammal began to fortify the botanical foundation of agriculture in India.
But dissatisfaction n soon crept in as the undue stress on cultivation was causing rampant deforestation and destroying native varieties of plants. She took to preserving rare indigenous plant varieties. She was particular that Indians should head botanical research in the country.
She pointed out that research by foreign botanists was creating a collection of indigenous plants outside India. India gained nothing from such research unless Indians were at the helm of such studies.
Even today, the largest collection of Indian plants are located at the National History Museum and the Kew Gardens in southwest London.
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Janaki Ammal initiated a chromosome survey in the Silent Valley when it was about to be drowned by a proposed hydroelectric project. The government was finally forced to abandon the project in the face of sustained opposition fo people from all walks of life. She wasn’t around to enjoy the triumph having passed away just nine months before the decision.
Her work survives in diverse fields of studies from her contribution to the sweetness of sugarcane in India, to the biodiversity that thrives in the forests of the Silent Valley. She was an environmental crusader long before the word became fashionable.