A Genetics Genius Sweetens India

Botanist Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal fights sexism to leave an incredible legacy

India had a problem. The only types of sugarcane they could get to grow in their tropical climate were not very sweet. They were forced to import sugarcane from the island of Java, where the sweetest varieties flourished. Hope came in 1934, in the form of botanist Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal. This was the year she joined the staff of the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute in Coimbatore, later renamed the Sugarcane Breeding Institute of India. Here, she revolutionized India’s crops and solved its sugarcane crisis.

Saccharum officinarum was the sugarcane species commonly grown in India, and Ammal quickly got to work on attempting to find a hardy native plant to crossbreed it with. She wanted to develop its sweetness and its ability to grow in India’s climate by creating an intergeneric hybrid. Ammal looked to species like sorghum, bamboo, and other grasses to determine which combination produced the sweetest crop. Her work meant India could finally declare sugar independence. 

Often referred to as the first Indian woman botanist, Janaki Ammal was an incredible scientist with a dizzying array of firsts to her name: First Indian woman to get a PhD in botany in the US, first woman scientist to become a fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences, first salaried woman at the John Innes institute in the UK, first women scientist to be awarded a Padma Shri (the fourth-highest civilian honor in India).

Ammal was born in 1897 in Tellichery, Kerala (now Thalassery) to a middle class family. It was a lively household, as she had a total of 19 siblings. Her father’s keen interest in nature must have rubbed off on her, as he had authored two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. Her family was more progressive than some, and encouraged their daughters in intellectual pursuits. Ammal finished school in Tellichery at a time when fewer than 1,000 women in India remained in school beyond the 10th grade. (Literacy among women in India was reportedly less than one percent in 1913.) 

What was even rarer was a woman pursuing advanced science scholarship. As her sisters were being married off, Ammal went to study botany at Queen Mary’s College in Madras (now Chennai). After achieving an honors degree from the Presidency College in 1921, she began teaching at the Women’s Christian College (WCC) in Madras. Before long, she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Michigan. 

Upon her arrival in America, Ammal was briefly detained while her immigration status was confirmed. She was eventually let into the country because they mistook her for an Indian princess. “I did not deny it,” Ammal later admitted. Ammal had long dark hair and while she wasn’t one for fancy things, she did love to wear yellow sarees. 

She completed her master’s in 1925 and returned to her post at the WCC. Again, she soon found herself back stateside as Michigan’s first Oriental Barbour Fellow. Here, her work focused on patterns of gene expression and gene composition in plants, specifically, she was interested in improving eggplant varieties. She developed a triploid eggplant cross, now known as “Janaki Brengal.” Her dissertation explored “Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloids.’’

Ammal described the university’s botanical gardens and research stations in letters to her sister Parvathi in 1930. She enjoyed working alongside women scientists from other Asian countries. “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 hope to be back in India before very long.” She completed her DSc degree (like to a PhD) in 1931 and became a botany professor at the Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum in Kerala. Next came her now-famous work as a sugarcane geneticist. 

Despite her unqualified brilliance, she faced sexism from her male scientific peers. She was also looked down upon for being single. When eminent biologist and professor Reginald Ruggles Gates visited the sugarcane institute, he expressed doubts about her crossbred sugarcane to her boss, Venkatraman. 

“It has taken seven long months to undo the harm that Gates did in the course of a simple day spent in Coimbatore,” she complained to a friend. “The doubt … stuck in the expert’s brain and my note to Nature was not sent up to the Director of Agriculture for the necessary permission to publish it outside India - I very nearly decided to leave this station as a result of all this—and life became very complicated—however I refused to be defeated and I am glad to report that Venkatraman is at last convinced that the cross is genuine.” In 1938, her letter to Nature was at long last published.

Ammal and colleagues (all white men) outside their lab at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden, Wisley, 1947. Courtesy John Innes Centre Archive.

1940 brought Ammal to England, where she spent the next 11 years, first as an assistant cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in Norwich, Norfolk, then as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley, south of London. While the second World War raged, she did her best to further the field of plant genomics. She also worked with Cyril Dean Darlington, and together they co-authored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants. Darlington later embraced eugenics.

The chromosome sets she studied in magnolias led to another new species named after her: Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal. Its bright white flowers have dark purple stamens.

A chance meeting with the Indian prime minister on a plane saw a personal invitation from him to Ammal, asking her to head the Botanical Survey of India. India was recently free of British rule and recovering from a rapid succession of famines that killed millions. But Ammal didn’t approve of the government’s approach to preventing further famines. By reclaiming 25 million acres of land for food crop cultivation, the government had caused rampant deforestation. 

“I went 37 miles from Shillong in search of the only tree of Magnolia griffithii in that part of Assam and found that it had been burnt down,” Ammal wrote.

Still, she continued to work for the government. After heading the Central Botanical Laboratory and serving as special duty officer at Regional Research Laboratory at Jammu, Ammal settled at Centre for Advanced Study in Botany in Madras. C.V. Subrmanian headed the Centre when Ammal was emeritus scientist there in the 1970s. 

“She was a quiet, unassuming, and unobtrusive but active and dynamic colleague, bearing her greatness lightly,” Subrmanian wrote of Ammal. “Though cytology was her forte all through, her work embraced genetics, evolution, phytogeography and ethnobotany. … Crop plants, garden plants, plantation crops, medicinal plants, plants in the wild and plants of the tribals – all species were interesting to her. … Her familiarity with British plants was matched by her familiarity with tropical species. She led a simple life of total dedication to her mission, remaining single. Her physical needs were few and she was unostentatious and modest to the core.”

In her later years, Ammal turned her energies toward environmental activism. When the government revealed its plan to flood a vast tropical forest in Kerala in order to build a hydroelectric power plant, 80-year-old Ammal jumped into action. She succeeded in preserving Silent Valley National Park. It remains an untouched forest that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species. Ammal once declared, “My work is what will survive.” And she was right. The magnolias she planted in Kew Gardens still bloom to this day.

To celebrate her accomplishments, two Indian plant breeders recently bred a new type of rose and named it after her.

Further Reading:

The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley,” by Leila McNeill, Smithsonian Magazine, July 31, 2019.

Janaki Ammal: My Work is What Will Survive,” by Vinita Damodaran, Science Gallery Bengaluru exhibit, Phytopia.

‘My Work Is What Will Survive’,” by Mandeep Matharu, Yvette Harvey, and Matthew Biggs, The Natural Sciences Collections Association blog, April 26, 2019.

More about me:

Order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.

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