Janaki Ammal: India’s First Woman PhD in Botany | AtomsTalk

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal considered a pioneer in botany who worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics and phytogeography.

Kakkat Janaki Ammal was one of the first women to receive a PhD from University of Michigan.

In the 1930s, most Indian women did not pass high school. But Janaki not only earned a PhD from one of the world's finest universities, she also made enormous contributions in the field botany and plant cytology.

This is a story of a phenomenal Indian woman who fought his way through an ultra-conservative society to fulfill his academic dreams.

Early life

Kakkat Janaki Amma was born in Thalassery in Kerala on November 4, 1897. She was the daughter of Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan who was a Sub-Judge in the then Madras Presidency.

Her father had a great interest in natural science and botany. He used to correspond regularly with scientists and keep descriptive notes about his growing garden.

Dewan Bahadur's love of learning and curiosity about botany was something he would pass on to little Janaki.

Dewan had 19 children – six from his first wife, Sharada, and thirteen from the second, Deviammal. The tenth of these children was Janaki Ammal.


Janaki completed her schooling in Thalassery(Tellicherry at that time) and moved to Madras.

She earned her bachelor's degree from Queen Mary's College and her Honors Degree in Botany from The Presidency College in 1921.

EK Janaki as a Barbour Scholar at the University of Michigan, 1930
EK Janaki as a Barbour Scholar at the University of Michigan, 1930. Courtesy of Vinita Damodaran.

She got the prestigious Barbour Scholarship from University of Michigan in the United States, for her extraordinary academics.

Janaki left for the University of Michigan and in 1925 received her master's degree in botany.

At the University of Michigan, Janaki focused on plants cytologythe study of genetic makeup and patterns of gene expression in plants.

During her research, she specialized in breeding interspecific hybrids and intergeneric hybrids.

She then came back to India for some time. After a few years she returned to University of Michigan as an Oriental Barbour Fellow. She received her doctorate in 1931. Her thesis was entitled “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides”.


After receiving her honors from Presidency College, in 1921, she started teaching at Women's Christian College.

She quit her job and pursued her master's degree. After completing her master's program, she returned to India to work as a professor at the Women's Christian College in Madras for a few years.

After completing his Ph.D., she became a professor of botany at Maharaja's College of Science in Trivandrum. She taught there for two years between 1932 and 1934.

Then she joined Sugar cane breeding station at Coimbatore. During that time, the sweetest sugar was found in Papua New Guinea and India imported it from Southeast Asia.

Janaki took it as a challenge to improve the quality of sugarcane in India.

After years of research, she was able to create a high-yielding strain of sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. Her research helped other researchers to analyze the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India and to determine the elite variety of sugarcane in India.

Nobel laureate CV Raman founded Indian Academy of Science 1935. He chose Janaki Ammal as a scholar already in his first year.

Back then in India, Janaki's caste was considered backward and created irreconcilable problems for Janaki among her peers at Coimbatore.

Janaki Ammal in the snow in England
Janaki in the snow in England (undated). Courtesy of the John Innes Center Archive.

Facing caste and gender discrimination, Janaki left Coimbatore and joined Innes Garden Institute as an assistant cytologist in London, England.

She worked there from 1940 to 1945, she met the tragedy of World War II in London.

Later, talking about the experience with her friends, the brave woman described how she used to hide under her bed during the bombing from German fighter planes.

Royal Horticultural Society invited Janaki Ammal to join them as one cytologist at their campus in Winsley, near Kew Gardens. There she met some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and botanists in the world.

[In1945shewasco-authorof[1945varhonmedförfattaretillChromosome atlas of cultivated plants with biologist CD Darlingtona close friend and mentor for most of her life.

On Royal Horticultural Societyshe studied the botanical use of colchicine (a drug that can double a plant's chromosome number) resulting in larger and faster growing plants.

One of her successful results was Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammala magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens., named after Janaki Ammal.

In 1951, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited her to return to India and take charge of the newly formed Botanical Survey of India (BSI).

She accepted the Prime Minister's offer and was appointed to it Special Officer to BSI.

Her colleagues had shared the stories, how Janaki would take a long broom and clean the streets outside Botanical Survey of India Calcutta office.

Janaki also loved to travel and she also traveled to some of the most remote areas of the country in search of the indigenous plants of the subcontinent.

She visited areas with extreme climatic conditions such as Ladakh to explore methods of sustainable agriculture at high altitudes.

She has always been an ardent environmentalist as well.

Janaki was very down to earth even after reaching the pinnacle of success, she believed in leading a very simple lifestyle she said, “My work will survive“.

She lived a life that few women could dream of. She had the courage to follow her dreams and lived an extraordinary life that truly stands as an inspiration to many of us.

Janaki with eminent botanist at john innes centre
From left to right- JMS Potter (Director, NFT), RE Adams (Assistant Director); JSL Gilmour (Director, Wisley); Enoch (Assistant Cytologist); G. Fox Wilson (Entomologist); NK Gould (botanist); Dr Janaki-Ammal (Cytologist); DE Green (mycologist). Courtesy of the John Innes Center Archive.

Awards and recognitions

In an article in Indian Currents Magazine published on January 1, 2000, Janaki Ammal was named among the Indian Americans of the Century.

EK Janaki Ammal was the first Indian woman to receive a PhD in Botany in the US in 1931 and remains one of the very few Asian women to be awarded a DSc (honoris causa), by the University of Michigan.

Janaki Ammal was elected a fellow in Indian Academy of Sciences 1935, and a fellow in National Academy of Sciences in 1957.

University of Michigan assigned one honorary LL.D. on her in 1956 in recognition of her contributions in botany and cytogenetics.

Janaki Ammal got the prestigious Padma Shri in 1977.

National Award of Taxonomy was established in the name of Janaki Ammal in 2000 by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of India.

Two awards were instituted in Janaki Ammal's name in 1999 by the Government of India viz
1. EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant taxonomy and
2. EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Taxonomy of animals.

There is a herbarium in Jammutawi with over 25,000 plant species named after EK Janaki Ammal.

John Innes Center offers a scholarship program to PhD students from developing countries like India and Africa in the name of Janaki Ammal.


Janaki Ammal died of natural causes on February 7, 1984 in Maduravoyal, Chennai at the age of 86.


Who is Janaki Ammal?

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal is an Indian scientist who is considered a pioneer in botany and worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics and phytogeography.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Science stories

#Janaki #Ammal #Indias #Woman #PhD #Botany #AtomsTalk

Source link

Leave a Reply