Janaki was born in 1897 in Telicherry (now called Thalassery). Her father had a passion for natural sciences, botany, and ornithology, writing two books on the birds of Malabar. By all accounts, Janaki’s father passed down his interests in science to his children.
Pictured: The location of Thalassery in Kerala, India.
At a time when most women in India didn’t complete high school, Janaki finished school in Telicherry and moved to Madras (now Chennai) to begin an undergraduate degree in botany. Having completed her degree she began teaching botany when she received a Barbour Scholarship in 1924 from the University of Michigan to pursue her master’s. After finishing her master’s Janaki moved back to India to teach and ultimately returned to Ann Arbor as the first Indian Oriental Barbour Fellow, completing her doctorate in botany in 1931.
In a story about Janaki in medium.com Dr. Archana Nagarajan writes that throughout her life Janaki could claim many firsts: “first female to get a Ph.D. in botany in US, first womean scientist to become a fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences, probably the first salaried woman at the John Innes institute and first woman scientist to be conferred a Padma Shri in 1977.” The Padma Shri is the fourth-highest civilian award in India.
Among her many accomplishments, Janaki worked as a geneticist in the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore, developing a sweeter hybrid of the plant that would help India reduce its reliance on Indonesian sugar imports. She was hired as an assistant cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in London during World War II, where she worked with Cyril Dean Darlington to coauthor The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants. Ammal researched chromosome sets in magnolias, and investigated many plant genera. She helped restructure the Botanical Survey of India after having been personally invited by Jawaharlal Nehru, the the prime minister of India in 1951, to return to India from England. And she was an environmental activist who participated in many protests against a hydropower dam in the Silent Valley of Kerala. The dam project—which was scrapped—would have permanently damaged the valley’s ecosystem.
Despite her immense professional accomplishments, little has been recorded about her personal life and feelings. In a story about her in The Wire, Ammal’s grandniece Geeta Doctor shares a letter Ammal wrote to her sister Parvathi in 1930. In the letter, Ammal recounts working at the University of Michigan botanical gardens—then near Iroquois Street in Ann Arbor—and spending time in the U-M research station near Cheboygan, Mich.
“It is my dream to send some Indian girls to study in China and Japan and have girls from these countries to come to our country,” Ammal wrote. “I have just had an invitation from a college in China to teach botany. Of course, all this means money, but I feel that it will come somehow. I hope to be back in India before very long.”
Personal accounts of Ammal’s life are scant but nevertheless a powerful theme runs through most stories written about her. She placed her work before herself throughout her life and believed that it would be that work she would be remembered by.
Photo credits: the younger Janaki Ammal: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons