Birbal Sahni: The Story of an Indian Paleobotanist | AtomsTalk

Professor Birbal Sahni FRS was an Indian paleobotanist, a branch of botany concerned with the biological reconstruction of past environments and the identification of extant plants from geological contexts.

He was a scholar and well acclaimed in the field of science all over the world. He made a significant contribution to geology and archaeology.

Early life

He was born on November 14, 1891 in Bhera, a small town in western Punjab which is now in Pakistan.

Birbal was the third child of Ishwar Devi and pioneer Indian meteorologist and scientist Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni.

Ruchi Ram Sahni was Professor of Chemistry at Lahore Government College. He studied chemistry in Manchester and worked with great scientists such as Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr.

Birbal Sahni's grandfather owned a banking business and conducted amateur research in chemistry and was the first person to influence him in the world of science.

Every summer, Birbal Sahni's father used to take him on long treks in the Himalayan mountain range as he had a great passion for the outdoors and trekking.

From Pathankot to Rohtang Pass, Kalka to Chini (Indo-Tibet Road), Narkanda, Amarnath, Rampur, Bushahr, Kilba, Buranpas, Machoi Glacier and Zojila Pass etc between 1907 and 1911 much was cherished by him.

These expeditions gave him a broad overview of the paleobotanical and geological problems. It planted the seed of paleobotany in his mind and helped him realize his passion.

He got married Mrs. Savitridaughter of Mr. Sundar Das Suri. She was his strength and encouragement in all walks of life.


Birla Sahni's early education was in Lahore, from Mission and Central Model schools later at The Government College.

He was indeed an exceptional student and achieved many honors and academic awards during his student life. This includes standing first in the Sanskrit language in matriculation,

Secure a district level distinction in Secondary Science.

He completed his graduation from University of the Punjab (now in Pakistan) in 1911.

Birbal followed his brothers to England and graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1914. He later studied under Albert Charles Seward and was awarded the D.Sc. degree at the University of London in 1919.

He was awarded the degree of Doctor of natural sciences for his research in the field paleobotany. Birbal also secured first class in Part 1 of the Science Tripos and achieved Part 2 of the Tripos in 1915.


Sahni then joined Professor Seward to work on a revision of Indian Gondwana plants.

In 1919 he worked briefly with the German plant morphologist Karl Ritter Von Goebel in Munich

After returning from London, he held faculty positions at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi and University of the PunjabPunjab.

Later in the year 1921, he joined Lucknow University as a Professor of Botany at the age of 30, later he established the Department of Geology and was the head of both departments.

Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow
Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow (Source)

Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany

In September 1948, the United Provinces Government gifted a piece of land to Birbal, next door Lucknow University. He made a comprehensive plan to build his institution.

He founded what is now Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow in 1946

Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehruthe then Prime Minister of India laid the foundation stone on April 3, 1949.

Sahni in his welcome address said: “The foundation stone symbolizes: A great fact of the antiquity of the plant life on the globe, the intellect of man ever trying to bring out this fact more and more clearly and revealing different stages not only in the development of the plant kingdom in more and more orderly and intelligible sequence but also the development of his own poor understanding of this truth”.

The very construction of it, the defects and imperfections of its whole composition, the labor which has gone into its preparation, are all but symbols of our imperfect and helpless efforts to construct something new, something valuable.”

Unfortunately, he died just a week after laying the foundation stone and could not live long enough to nurture his dream.


Professor Sahni received many awards and recognitions for his significant contributions in geology and paleobotany.

He got
1. The Barclay Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1936
2. The Nelson Wright Medal of the Numismatic Society of India year 1945
3. Sir CR Reddy National Award in 1947.

The University of Cambridge had recognized his research and awarded a Sc. D. 1929. The American Academy of Arts and Science elected him its Foreign Honorary Fellow in 1948.


He was elected a colleague in Geological Society of Great Britain. He also served as the editor of Botanical journal Chronica Botanica.

In 1936 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (FRS) the highest British scientific award.

In 1940 Birbal was General President of Indian Science Congress.

He was elected vice president for the 5th and 6th International Botanical Congress 1930 and 1935 were held in Cambridge and Amsterdam respectively.

He was one of the founders of fellow of the National Institute of Science Academy (now Indian Science Academy, New Delhi).

But in 1950 fate prevented him from presiding as honorary president of the International Botanical Congress, which was held in Stockholm.


Birbal Sahni died on April 10, 1949 suffered from cerebral thrombosis in Lucknow.

As he lay on his deathbed, his last thoughts were not of him or his family but of the institute he had recently founded.

He expressed his intense feeling for his wife just before passing into eternal sleep and his last words were: nourish the institute.

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