Dr. E. K. Janaki Ammal - Ethnobotanist, geneticist, and champion of anti-colonialist conservation

botanist

In the early 20th century, botanist Dr. Edavalath Kakkat Janaki Ammal pioneered an integration of scientific botany and ethnobotany, becoming a leading Indian and international geneticist and ethnobotanist. In addition to her many scientific achievements, Dr. Ammal’s work is seen as a testament to anti-colonialist conservation and represents some of the earliest formal recognitions given to a female botanist. Thanks to preserved written correspondence between Dr. Ammal and her colleagues and friends, several biographical works have been published since her passing - info about these will be below, we urge you to read more about this remarkable botanist. 

Born in the tropical state of Kerala, India in 1897 (at the time under British colonial rule) to a mixed family, she gained a love of biology early from her father and pursued an education in botany. Dr. Ammal’s choice to obtain formal higher education was far from the time’s culturally accepted norm of women marrying early and focusing on family life. A follower of Gandhi’s teachings, her family describes her as living a simple and disciplined life with a commanding presence not unlike a Buddhist monk, or an Indian princess, wearing silk sarees and a loose bun at her neck (3). 

Dr. Ammal completed a BA and honours degree in botany in Madras, then became a lecturer until receiving an international scholarship to Michigan University where she completed her MA, followed by a doctorate in 1931. Dr. Ammal’s thesis focused on cytogenetics, the study of genetic inheritance in relation to chromosomes (1). 

She returned to India in 1932 to serve as professor of Botany at the Maharaja College of Science in Kerala, directing her research toward sugarcane breeding and hybridization. Despite facing explicit racism and discrimination at the hands of her colleagues, she persisted and published several letters in prominent scientific journals such as Nature regarding her agricultural breakthroughs (2). This included producing sugarcane hybrids capable of growing in India’s climate, where previously all sugar had been imported. In the 40s, she worked at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in London for the duration of the war and published The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with colleague C.D. Darlington, an invaluable text to botanists for decades. In 1946 she became the Royal Horticultural Society’s first paid female employee (2) furthering her genetic research using Magnolia at Wisley gardens near Kew, where several of her seedlings still grow and bloom each spring (1). She also conducted research on the genera Solanum, Datura, Mentha, and Dioscorea (2).

She later returned home to India where she was appointed to reorganize the Botanical Survey of India, an organization initiated by Europeans a century earlier. She took this as an opportunity to strengthen an independent India’s national identity, and created a plan to develop local herbaria throughout India. At the time, removal of native species by foreign botanists meant that the majority of research on Indian flora occurred outside of India. Although some of her institutional plans would come to fruition, she encountered many roadblocks including being side-stepped for the position of chief botanist of India in favour of a European. She wrote, “Kew has won…. and we have lost... I feel sick. When I heard the news I ran away to the wilds of Malabar to collect wild yams…” (2). 

Her time as a government advisor would rekindle her intuitive passion for ethnobotany, and she grew frustrated with the industrialization of science and agriculture. Famines in the previous decade had given rise to a “grow more food” campaign throughout India which had encouraged widespread deforestation, and Dr. Ammal recognized this increasing divide between agricultural science and ecological conservation.

In 1956, Dr. Ammal spoke as the only woman in Chicago’s ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth’ conference, delivering a paper regarding the importance of indigenous knowledge and traditional subsistence agronomies to an audience of largely “white Anglo-Saxon men.” (2). 

She continued her research at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu, where she mentored and inspired many graduate students. She was outspoken about the lack of government funding for fundamental scientific research and the risks of prioritizing industrial growth over sustainability and ecological knowledge (2) - issues that still haunt researchers today. She travelled extensively, even into her 80s, and took detailed records of indigenous knowledge such as sustainable farming practices at high altitudes in Ladakh, and matriarchal land management. “I am a born wanderer. There is a great restlessness in me,” she once wrote. (3) 

At the age of 81, Dr. Ammal undertook a chromosomal survey of the diverse Silent Valley in Kerala, which was being threatened with flooding for hydroelectric development. She joined the fight for ecological preservation of this lush old-growth rainforest, and even collected specimens and seeds to maintain in her ethnobotanical garden. They succeeded, and the valley was declared a national park in 1985 just months after her passing (2). 

She was awarded a Padma Shri by the Indian government in 1977 for her scientific work, and in addition to her everlasting contributions to genetics and botany, her legacy remains in many forms - the Janaki Ammal herbarium in Jammu (4), several scholarships (8) and awards (1) in her name, the species Sonerila janakiana (5) and the rose (6) and Magnolia kobus (3) cultivars bearing her name - E.K. Janaki Ammal.

 Her life and work provide a fascinating framework for exploring science in the age of colonialism and war, as well as the highly controversial, political world of early genetics research (7). And although she never spoke about her situation in explicitly feminist terms, “one could say that she practiced rather than preached feminism through a lifelong insistence and personal demonstration that devotion to science is not incompatible with a women’s gender.”(2)

 

 

Sources: 

1) Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, Pioneering Botanist, Cytogeneticist and Passionate Gandhian - Geeta Doctor 

https://scroll.in/article/730186/remembering-dr-janaki-ammal-pioneering-botanist-cytogeneticist-and-passionate-gandhian

2) Vinita Damodaran, 2013; Gender, Race and Science in Twentieth-century India: E. K. Janaki Ammal and the History Of Science

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/007327531305100302

3) Celebrating Janaki Ammal, Botanist and a Passionate Wanderer Of Many Worlds

https://thewire.in/science/janaki-ammal-magnolia-edathil

4) https://iiim.res.in/herbarium/introduction.htm

5)  M. Narayanan-C. Sunil-M. Sivadasan-M. Nandakumar-V. Kumar-A. Alfarhan-M. Sameh - Nordic Journal of Botany - 2017 Sonerila janakiana sp. nov., a stoloniferous species of Melastomataceae from India

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/njb.01297

6)  Rose Named After Janaki Ammal

 https://www.jic.ac.uk/blog/rose-named-after-janaki-ammal/

7)  Vinita Damodaran - 2017, Journal of Genetics -  Janaki Ammal, C. D. Darlington and J. B. S. Haldane: scientific encounters at the end of empire

 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12041-017-0844-1

8) https://www.jic.ac.uk/training-careers/postgraduate-opportunities/janaki-ammal-scholarships/

9) Leila McNeill - The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/pioneering-female-botanist-who-sweetened-nation-and-saved-valley-180972765/

 

IMAGE CREDIT : 

 Wikimedia Commons, Author: Shaminir, ‘ Janaki at University of Michigan’ - https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Botanist_Janaki_Ammal.jpg

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