Meet the incredible woman who made the sugar sweeter

The first Indian woman botanist to earn a doctorate, Eveleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on November 4th,1897 in Thalassery  in Kerala. Her father served as a sub-judge for the Madras presidency. His interest in the natural sciences led him to engage in conversations  with scientists and take notes about growing the plants in his yard. This inquisitiveness seems to have been passed on to his children. He had 6 children from Sharadha, his first wife, and 13 children from Deviammal, his second  wife. Janaki Ammal was born the tenth child to Deviammal. She led a very simple Gandhian life.

 

After her schooling, Janaki went on to complete her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College. In 1921, she received an honorary degree in botany from the Presidency College. She then became a lecturer at Women’s Christian College. While teaching there she was offered, and accepted, an eminent Barbour scholarship from the University of Michigan of the USA.

 

Instead of marriage, she chose to pursue her Master’s degree, on completing which she resumed her teaching position. She again moved to Michigan for her doctoral research. On earning her Doctorate, she joined the faculty of the Maharaja College of Sciences in Trivandrum in 1932.

At that time, India used to import Saccharum officianarum, which was considered to be the world’s sweetest sugar, from South East Asia. The cytogenetic genius, Dr.Janaki,  got involved with the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore. It began in the early 1920s as an attempt to enhance different kinds of original sugarcane species. She worked extensively on Sugarcane biology. A fruitful strand of the sugarcane plant was created by crossbreeding polyploid cells with other hybrids which thrived under Indian climatic conditions. A geographical allotment was researched and analyzed by her for establishing sugarcane plantations in India. The “Saccharum Spontaneum” variety of sugarcane was propagated by her in the year 1935.

Sir.C.V.Raman, the legendary physicist had started the Indian Academy of Sciences and offered a research fellowship to Janaki Ammal for the first year. In Coimbatore, she had to face a lot of harassment from her male colleagues for being a woman and because of her caste. Due to this discrimination, Janaki left India. She moved to London and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist.

 

Dr. Janaki spent 5 years in London (1940-1945) during the Second World War, when German planes and rockets bombed London virtually every night. Sharing the experience with her friends, the brave woman described how due to the night bombings she dived under the bed and then the next day she would clean the broken glass and continue her research. The Royal Horticultural society was immensely impressed with her work and offered her a position in their own campus. This is famous for the collection of various plants from around the world. Here, she worked on one of the plants called Magnolia. Even today the magnolia bushes that were planted by Dr. Janaki, small white flowers called Magnolia Kobus, are to be found in the Wisley campus. These flowers are revered in China and Japan. While working there she met several botanists, cytologists, and geneticists from across the world who were pioneers in their fields. In 1945 with the support of a mentor and a long time friend, Dr. Janaki jointly authored a book, “The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants”.

 

In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru called Dr. Janaki for a special assignment at the Botanical Survey of India. She reorganized the Kolkata office, travelling often to explore sugarcane plants, eggplant, Datura, Terminalia, etc for both economic and medical use. She took an active part in environmental activities. She initiated the protest movement against the hydro-power dam that was proposed over a river in Kerala’s Silent Valley.

Magnolia Kobus

Dr. Janaki was the only Indian woman invited to the Landmark International Symposium on environmental history, organized by the Wenner Gren Foundation. It was held in Princeton in 1955 on “Man’s role in changing the face of the earth”. For a short span, she served at the Trombay Atomic research Station prior to working as an emeritus scientist in Botany from the University of Madras.

 

Dr. Janaki was awarded the Padma Sri for her contributions to the life sciences in 1977. A national award of taxonomy was named after her by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There are several species of herbs that are named after her. She was also honored in England by the John Innes Centre with a scholarship for post graduate students in her name. In her  last years, she reared a huge family of kittens and cats. Being a master at genetics she founded and traced the precise differences in the attributes of her favorite cats and kittens.

 

She passed away on 7th February, 1984 at her research laboratory, at the ripe old age of 87. Her eulogy stated, “She devoted herself to education and research till her last breath”. Despite  several hardships and societal pressures, she strongly believed that only through her work would she be remembered. She is internationally recognized as a botanist and scientist for her outstanding work. So, hereafter when you consume a handful of sugar produced by an Indian farmer, don’t forget to thank Dr.Janaki Ammal for that extra sweet taste.