Janaki Ammal

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Janaki Ammal
Janaki Ammal.jpg
An older photograph of Janaki Ammal
Born(1897-11-04)4 November 1897
Died(1984-02-07)7 February 1984 (aged 86)
Madras, Tamil Nadu
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
Scientific career
FieldsBotany, Cytology
InstitutionsUniversity Botany Laboratory, Madras John Innes Centre
ThesisChromosome Studies in Nicandra physaloides
Janaki Ammal's signature.png

Janaki Ammal Edavalath Kakkat (4 November 1897 – 7 February 1984) was an Indian botanist who conducted scientific research in cytogenetics and phytogeography.[1] Her most notable work involves those on sugarcane and the eggplant (brinjal). She has collected various valuable plants of medicinal and economic value from the rain forests of Kerala.



E.K.Janaki Ammal (Nov 4,1897- Feb 7, 1984), was an Indian born woman scientist of extraordinary accomplishment in the fields of botany, taxonomy and  cytogenetics. She has been awarded the highest civilian award of Padmashri by the Government of India, in recognition of her work. She is highly regarded by scientists for her cytogenetical studies on sugarcane, egg plant, cymbopogon, terminalia, dhatura and dioscorea.

She is revered in world science institutions and universities for her monumental cytology reference book, the  ‘Chromosome of Cultivated Plants,’ which she co-authored with eminent cytologist, C.D.Darlington.

After post graduating with Honours in Botany from Presidency College, Madras Janaki travels to Michigan for her Masters in 1924, under the prestigious Barbour Scholarship and receives her master's degree in Botany in 1926. She returns to India to work as a professor in Women's Christian College, Madras for a few years, but goes back to Michigan to advance her studies and become the first woman in the U.S. to earn a DSc / Phd in Botany and First Oriental Barbour Fellow, from the University of Michigan in 1931. In 1956, the University further awards Janaki, their prestigious alumni, an Honorary LLD.

In 1931, Janaki joins the John Innes Institute, Merton, London, where she meets C D. Darlington, sparking the beginning of a remarkable lifelong collaboration in scientific research and academia.

After a year at John Innes, Janaki returns to India to take position as Professor of Botany, Maharaja's College of Science, in Trivandrum, Kerala.

In 1934, she moves to Coimbatore  to work there as a Geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, creating several intergeneric hybrids: Saccharum x Zea, Saccharum x Erianthus, Saccharum x Imperata and Saccharum x Sorghum. She pioneers work on the cytogenetics of Saccharum officinarum (sugarcane) and interspecific and intergeneric hybrids involving sugarcane and related grass species and genera such as Bambusa (bamboo). Her invaluable work on sugarcane cross breeding gave us the sweetest sugar that we use now.

In 1939 she returns to UK as a participant, in the 7th International Congress of Genetics, Edinburgh. World War holds her back from returning to India, and science is rewarded, as she spends the next 6 years in John Innes as Assistant cytologist to Darlington, where they write and publish in 1945, the  'Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’-the standard reference for cytological studies today.

She continues work as Cytologist, at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wesley, and becomes their first salaried woman staff member (1945-1951). At RHS, Wesley she crafts her first hybrid flower, the ‘Magnolia Cobus Janaki Akmal.’

In 1962, as Officer on Special duty at RR Laboratory in Jammu & Kashmir she works on successfully propagating another plant, the ‘Jammu Mint’ from a partially sterile Japanese strain

She also holds another flower to her memory - in 2018, to honour her remarkable career and contribution to plant science, two Indian plant breeders, Girija and Viru Viraraghavan bred a new rose, which they have named ‘E.K. Janaki Ammal’.


Janaki is mentioned among Indian Americans of the Century in an India Currents magazine article published on January 1, 2000, by S.Gopikrishna & Vandana Kumar: "In an age when most women didn't make it past high school, would it be possible for an Indian woman to obtain a PhD at one of America's finest public universities and also make seminal contributions to her field?!" The Kerala-born Ammal was arguably the first woman to obtain a PhD in botany in the U.S. (1931), and remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred a DSc (honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan. During her time at Ann Arbor she lived in the Martha Cook Building, an all-female residence hall and worked with Harley Harris Bartlett, Professor at the Department of Botany.

As Assistant Cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, and as cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley from 1945 to 1951, she published counts of chromosome numbers in species such as Sclerostachya fusca.[2] She is best remembered for co-authoring the monumental work, "Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants" along with C. D. Darlington.[3]

there is an intriguing statement written by Ellis Marks that Janaki had smuggled a palm squirrel named ‘Kapok’ into the country when she arrived from the USA. Kapok lived with her at the John Innes Horticultural Institute for many years.

Ammal made several intergeneric hybrids: Saccharum x Zea, Saccharum x Erianthus, Saccharum x Imperata and Saccharum x Sorghum. From then onwards, Ammal was in the service of the government of India in various capacities including heading the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad, and was officer on special duty at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu. She worked for a brief period at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay before settling down in Madras in November 1970 as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras.

She lived and worked in the Centre's Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras until her demise in February 1984. Her obituary states "She was devoted to her studies and research until the end of her life." Aptly chosen lines from the Rig Veda that highlight her fondness for plants mark her obituary, "The sun receive thine eye, the wind thy spirit; go as thy merit is, to earth or heaven. Go, if it be thy lot, unto water; go make thine house in plants with all thy members."


During the years (1939–1950) she spent in England, she did chromosome studies of a wide range of garden plants. Her studies on chromosome numbers and ploidy in many cases threw light on the evolution of species and varieties. The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants which she wrote jointly with C. D. Darlington in 1945 was a compilation that incorporated much of her own work on many species. Ammal also worked on the genera Solanum, Datura, Mentha, Cymbopogon and Dioscorea besides medicinal and other plants. She attributed the higher rate of plant speciation in the cold and humid northeast Himalayas as compared to the cold and dry northwest Himalayas to polyploidy.[4] Also, according to her, the confluence of Chinese and Malayan elements in the flora of northeast India led to natural hybridisation between these and the native flora in this region, contributing further to plant diversification. Following her retirement, Ammal continued to work focusing special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued to publish the original findings of her research. In the Centre of Advanced Study Field Laboratory where she lived and worked she developed a garden of medicinal plants. She also worked on cytology.

The 'Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal'

As a geneticist working for the Royal Horticultural Society's Garden Wisley in the early 1950s, Dr. Janaki was investigating the effects of colchicine on a number of woody plants, including Magnolia, where a stock solution in water is made up and applied to the growing tip of young seedlings once the cotyledons (seed leaves) have fully expanded. Doubling of chromosomes occurs, giving the cells twice the usual number. The resulting plants have heavier textured leaves; their flowers are variable, often with thicker tepals, helping them last longer. As Magnolia kobus seeds were available in quantity, a number of seedlings were treated by Dr Janaki Ammal and ultimately planted on Battleston Hill at Wisley.

Awards and honours[edit]

Ammal was elected Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935, and of the Indian National Science Academy in 1957. The University of Michigan conferred an honorary LL.D. on her in 1956 in recognition of her contributions to botany and cytogenetics said: "Blest with the ability to make painstaking and accurate observations, she and her patient endeavours stand as a model for serious and dedicated scientific workers." The Government of India conferred the Padma Shri on her in 1977.[5] The Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India instituted the National Award of Taxonomy in her name in 2000.

Janaki Ammal National Award for Taxonomy[edit]

To promote excellent work in taxonomy and encourage young students and scholars to work in this field, the E.K. Janaki Ammal Award was instituted in the year 1999. Two awards, for outstanding work in Botanical and Zoological Taxonomy including work done in Micro-organisms are eligible for consideration under either of the two categories—E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant Taxonomy and E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award on Animal Taxonomy respectively.

Janaki Ammal Scholarships[edit]

The John Innes Centre offers a scholarship to PhD students from developing countries in her name.



Schooled at Sacred Heart Girls HS, Tellicherry, Kerala

bachelor's degree, Botany, Queen Mary's College (Originally Madras College for Women), Madras

B.Sc Honors, Botany, Presidency College, Madras (1921)

Barbour scholar, MS, University of Michigan (1925)

First Oriental Barbour Fellow, D.Sc / Ph.D University of Michigan (1931)

Honorary LLD, University of Michigan (1956)


Lecturer, Women's Christian College, Madras (1921-1923)

Leaves for U.S. on a Barbour Scholarship, University of Michigan (1924). The Barbour Scholarships were endowed at the University of Michigan in 1917 by Levi Lewis Barbour for women of the highest academic and professional caliber.

First woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in Botany, University of Michigan (1926)

Professor, Women's Christian College, Madras (1926-1929)

First Oriental Barbour Fellow, DSc, University of Michigan (1931)

Joins John Innes Institute, Merton, London (1931-1932)

Professor of Botany, Maharaja's College of Science, Trivandrum (1932–34)

Geneticist, Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore (1934-1939)

Participant, 7th International Congress of Genetics, Edinburgh (1939).

Stays on in UK and works as Assistant cytologist to C. D. Darlington, John Innes Institute, to co-author a monumental work 'Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’-the standard reference for cytological studies (1940-1945)

Continues work as Cytologist, at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wesley, and becomes their first salaried woman staff member (1945-1951)

Created her first hybrid flower, the ‘Magnolia Cobus Janaki Ammal.’

Returns to India under Jawaharlal Nehru's request, and takes post as Officer on Special Duty and In-charge for re-organization of Botanical Survey of India, BSI, Allahabad (1951)

Officer on Special Duty, Chairman, Cytogenetics Discipline and Emeritus Scientist, Regional Research Laboratory, (RRL,now, Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine) Jammu. Propagates ‘Jammu Mint’. (1962)

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Kashmir.

Emeritus Scientist, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, Mumbai

Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study of Botany, University of Madras (1970-1984).

A concerned environmentalist, Janaki joins Save Silent Valley, (1970) a forward thinking campaign to stop a hydroelectric project that would flood 8.3 square kilometers of Silent Valley forest. The Valley was declared a national park on November 15, 1984. Janaki couldn't savour that moment, having passed away nine months earlier on February 7, at 87 and still working, in her laboratory at Maduravoyal, Madras.

Awards & Appointments[edit]

Barbour Scholar, University of Michigan (1924)

First woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in Botany, University of Michigan (1926)

Secretary, Botanical Society of India (1935–38)

Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences (1935), the year it was founded by Sir C V Raman

Fellow/Member, Linnaean Society (London), Royal Geographical Society (London), Genetical Society of England, Genetical Society of America, Royal Horticultural Society (London) (1939-1951)

Honorary LLD from the University of Michigan (1956)

President, Botanical Society of India (1960)

Birbal Sahmi award (1961)

Vice President, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore (1961–64),

President, Indian Society of Genetics and Plant Breeding (1961), Sigma Xi (USA) and British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Padmashree award by the Government of India (1977)

In her name[edit]

She evolved a cross known as "Janaki Brengal", brengal being the Indian name for eggplant.[6][7][8] Her PhD thesis titled "Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides" was published in 1932.

The E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award on Taxonomy (1999) by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, with a cash prize of Rs. 5 lakh and Research Grants of Rs. 5 Lakh.

The Janaki Ammal Herbarium (1994)at IIIM Jammu (Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, formerly RRL Regional Research Laboratory ) where she was Officer on Special Duty. It houses more than 21,500 specimens representing 3,254 species, 1,152 genera and 218 families of Angiosperms, Gymnosperms and Pteridophytes besides a precious collection of plant specimens from all over India.

The John Innes Centre Dr.Janaki Ammal Scholarships for postgraduate students from developing countries (2018)

A rose (2018)- To celebrate her remarkable career and contribution to plant science, two Indian plant breeders, Girija and Viru Viraraghavan bred a new rose, which they have named ‘E.K. Janaki Ammal’.


  1. ^ C.V, Subramanyan. "Janaki Ammal" (PDF). Indian Association of Scientists. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
  2. ^ Janaki-Ammal, E. K. "Chromosome Numbers in Sclerostachya fusca." Nature 145 (1940): 464.
  3. ^ Chromosome atlas of cultivated plants. C D Darlington; E K Janaki Ammal. London, G. Allen & Unwin Ltd 1945.
  4. ^ Janaki Ammal .E.K. The effect of the Himalayan uplift on the genetic composition of the flora of Asia. 1960. Indian botan. Soc., 39: 327-334
  5. ^ "Padma Shri" (PDF). Padma Shri. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  6. ^ The Michigan Alumnus, Volume 42, Page 532, UM libraries 1935
  7. ^ E.K. Janaki Ammal. A polyploid egg plant, Solanum melongena L. Papers of Michigan Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 15:81.
  8. ^ E. K. Janaki Ammal. Polyploidy in Solanum Melongena Linn. CYTOLOGIA. Vol. 5 (1933-1934) No. 4 P 453-459

Other sources[edit]

  • S Kedharnath, Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal (1897–1984), Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Indian National Science Academy, 13, pp. 90–101, with portrait (1988).
  • P Maheshwari and R N Kapil, Fifty Years of Science in India. Progress of Botany, Indian Science Congress Association, Calcutta, pp. 110, 118 (1963).
  • Damodaran, Vinita (2017). "Janaki Ammal, C. D. Darlington and J. B. S. Haldane: Scientific Encounters at the End of Empire", Journal of Genetics, 96 (5), 827-836. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12041-017-0844-1

External links[edit]