Remembering Janaki Ammal, the first Indian woman to receive a doctorate in Botany overseas
At a time when female education was still considered a luxury, Janaki Ammal Edavaleth Kakkat made history for India by becoming the first Indian woman to receive a D.Sc. (honorary doctorate) overseas. Receiving this degree before India had even achieved independence was no small feat. However, Janaki’s story didn’t end there. This was just the beginning.
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Born into a family of 34, Janaki was the 10th of the 13 children that her father had with his second wife, Deviamma. A sub-judge in Telicherry, which at the time was part of the Madras Presidency, Dewan Bahadur Ek Krishna was a man of abundant means. An ardent patron of the sciences, his libraries were often stacked with the latest scientific and literary journals.
He paid particular attention to the science of botany in lieu of developing his garden, and his keen interest in the subject was passed on to his daughter. An enthusiastic Janaki studied her Bachelor’s from Queen Mary’s College in Madras and went on to receive her honour’s degree from Presidency College in 1921. Following this, she had a brief stint in teaching at Women’s Christian College, Madras before she received the prestigious Barbour scholarship, granting her the chance to pursue her Master’s at the University of Michigan. At the time, as was custom, Janaki’s marriage was being planned to her first cousin. Despite facing apprehension and ridicule for choosing education over marriage, Janaki sailed determinedly across oceans and dedicated the next few years to studying the field of Botany.
Obtaining her degree in 1925, she returned to India briefly to teach at the WCC again, but this time, her mind wasn’t set to the task. Soon after this, she decided to return to the University of Michigan, this time as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow, to obtain a D.Sc. in 1931. Having actively decided to dedicate her life to academics, she returned to India. Between 1932 and 1934, she was the Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum.
During this period, the fight for independence from the British colonialism was on, and the need to make India self-sufficient was on the rise. During the 1910s, famous scholar and activist Madan Mohan Malaviya stressed on the need for India to improve on their sugarcane varieties, which till then had been imported from Papua New Guinea. Consequently, the Sugarcane Breeding Station was established in Coimbatore, and this was where Janaki headed next. She joined the station in the later part of the 1930s to work on sugarcane biology, considering that she now had a professional degree in cytogenetics, a science which studies the genetic content and expression of genes in the cell.
However, this was a period when science was still considered a male-dominated industry. Her male counterparts were averse to working with her on the same level. Additionally, she faced prejudice for belonging to the ‘backward’ Thiyya community. Finding the thought of an unmarried woman surpassing them in the field of experimentation and discovery unbearable, they tried to limit her progress at the station.
Janaki, too, realised that there was no way to work around this gender-biased stigma. Soon she left Coimbatore to join the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London as an assistant cytologist, where she worked from 1940-1945. This coincided with World War Two. As her niece Geeta Doctor said, her aunt would often narrate stories of hiding beneath her bed as the glass shelves shattered from the ongoing bombing.
By this point, her work had started being recognised amid the science circles. The Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley invited her to work with them as a cytologist. Janaki’s career peaked at this point. Through the society, she had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest scientists of the times. Building on this acquaintance, she co-authored a book The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants alongside friend and biologist CD Darlington. At the same time, because her work on the cytogenetics of the magnolia plant, a flowered variety of the same plant was named after her: ‘Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal’, a great honour for any Indian at the time.
Meanwhile, India had achieved independence and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was determined to create a ‘modern nation’ by developing on its many sectors. To this end, he personally invited Janaki to return and restructure the Botanical Survey of India. Thus, she was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty to the BSI, in which capacity she reorganised the Calcutta office in 1954.
Along with botany, Janaki was well-versed in ecology and biodiversity, and was also an ardent environmental activist. Her dedication to the cause was seen when she spoke out against the building of a hydro-power dam across the river Kunthipuzha in Kerala’s Silent Valley. Along with this, she was also the only woman to be invited to an international symposium on environmental history, among a guest list that included the world’s finest environmentalists. Called ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth’, it was organised by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research at Princeton in 1955.
Post-retirement, Janaki continued her contributions to science, serving for a short period at The Atomic Research Station at Thrombay. Following this, she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany at the University of Madras. For her relentless efforts and countless contributions in the field of science, the most outstanding being increasing the sweetness of sugar in the cane, she was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri in 1977. Janaki passed away a few years later in 1984, and in 1999, her memory was honoured with two awards instituted in her name.
Janaki Ammal was a woman who represented India across the ocean at a time when patriarchy demanded otherwise. Always curious, highly ambitious, and deeply passionate, Janaki will be remembered for her priceless contributions in helping develop the field of Indian Science and putting it on the world map.
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