Remembering Janaki Ammal: A scientist who sweetened sugarcane

  • Vignesh Radhakrishnan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 04, 2014 17:00 IST

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) lived a life only a handful of other women of her time lived.

She was 'unique'. How else would you describe a woman who went to the United States to pursue her MS, years before India achieved independence, when 'crossing the seven seas' was a taboo even for men and women were treated merely as child bearing machines.

She was 'courageous'. How else would you describe a woman who calmly went on with her research work in England between 1940 to 1945 when German planes were bombing London.

She was 'dedicated'. Ammal never married, maintained Indian 'attire' and habits and led a Gandhian life.

On her birth anniversary, let us take a look at some facets of her illustrious career.

A bit of her life

Ammal was born in Tellichery, Kerala in a middle class family on November 4, 1897. Not much is known about her personal life except that her father worked as a sub-judge and she had six brothers and five sisters.

After finishing her school in Kerala, she went to Madras Presidency (Chennai) to obtain her Bachelor's degree from Queen Mary's College and honours degree in botany from Presidency College in 1921.

She was teaching at Women's Christian College when she got the prestigious Barbour scholarship from the University of Michigan in the US where she did her Masters in 1925. She was just 28 then.

Ammal again went to Michigan in 1931 to pursue her doctoral thesis.

Dr EK Janaki Ammal then returned to India and taught botany at Trivandrum's Maharaja's College of Science for two years.

Women at that time and age were either expected to bear children or be confined to their kitchens.

Ammal braved a largely patriarchal, ultra-conservative society and went abroad not once but multiple times and there are a few questions worth pondering.

Were her parents broad-minded enough to send their daughter thousands of kilometers away in pursuit of education? Or did she struggle to get their approval? How did she escape the societal compulsions to get married?

Work in India and abroad

It was in 1934 that she started her work as a geneticist in the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore.

In 1935, the famous scientist and Noble laureate Sir CV Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences and selected Ammal as a research fellow in its very first year.

After working for five years at the Academy, she went to England in 1940. Just two months before her arrival, England had declared war on Germany. Nothing swayed Ammal and her commitment and courage were exemplary.

In England she worked for over a decade as an assistant cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, and then as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley.

It was in 1951, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her to work in restructuring the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She also headed the BSI after working in different parts of India in various capacities.

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957.

Breaking societal norms

CV Subramanian, a famous scholar in mycology, plant pathology and evolution, has chronicled Ammal's professional life in detail in Resonance - a journal of science education published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. He also worked with Ammal at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany in Madras (now Chennai) and was her close acquaintance during those years.

In his essay, Subramaniam speculates that India's former defence minister Krishna Menon may have helped Ammal during her stay in England and also may have been behind Nehru's invitation to her to work at the BSI.

"My conjecture is that India's freedom fighter in Britain, Krishna Menon, only a year older to her, and her contemporary in Tellicherry and at Presidency college, could have been instrumental. Menon was also probably link to her acquaintance with India's first prime minister - I do not know for certain," Subramaniam writes in his essay.

This conjecture may be close to the truth as Menon was also pursuing his education in England in the later part of the 1920s and ventured into politics in the UK in the late 1930s. He was also a close friend and confidant of former PM Nehru.

Subramaniam also gives a clue as to how Ammal may have broken the rigorous social commitments that existed on those days.

According to him, in Kerala's matrilineal families women normally had much more freedom and privilege than their counterparts in many other parts of India. They were encouraged to engage in intellectual pursuits. Thus giving us a hint as to how Ammal's family may have supported her throughout her education and career.

Sweetening sugarcane

D Balasubramanian of the LV Prasad Eye Institute, in an article in Hindu , has written about Ammal's research in sugarcane.

Balasubramanian writes that though India produced sugarcane in abundance, they were not as sweet as those grown in the Far East. India in fact imported sugarcane from Java and the Far East.

According to Balasubramanian, it was freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya who suggested in the 1910s that India should start a research and improve the quality of the sugarcane produced in the country.

Two scientists, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman started the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore and began their experiments by cross-breeding different types of sugarcane. Their work was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Ammal joined Venkataraman in Coimbatore and started her research in sugarcane. Her research led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, thus in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India.

As CV Subramanium rightly summarises in his essay, Ammal lived up to her own definition of greatness which combined virtue in life and passion in the pursuit of her science.

also read

‘Angry’ Mulayam to chair crucial SP meeting today, tough decisions expected
Show comments