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E.K. JANAKI AMMAL (1897-1984)

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was a path-breaking botanist and geneticist who studied the hybridization of Himalayan plants. She studied the genetic makeup of plants at a time when the discipline had barely been invented, and made pioneering contributions to our understanding of how plants cross-breed in the wild. She is renowned for her work in phytobiology, evolution studies, ethnobotany and phytogeography.

She was born at Tellichery in Kerala. Her father was a sub-judge in the then Madras Presidency. She grew up in Tellichery, then went to Madras to join Queen Mary’s College. In 1921 she got an honours degree in botany from Presidency College and began to teach at Women’s Christian College. In 1925 she went to the University of Michigan in the US as a Barbour scholar and obtained a masters degree there. She returned to Michigan again in 1931 to get a D.Sc. On returning she taught from 1932 to 1934 as Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum. She left to join the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore, which since the 1890s the scientists C.A. Barber and T.S. Venkataraman had been producing crossbred strains that were drought-resistance and disease-resistant strains of sugarcane under the Co brandname. There she specialized in cytology or the study of the structure and functions of the cell, as well as experimented with sugarcane hybridization and created several new hybrids of sugarcane strains with other species such as sorghum.

In 1939 she left for Britain, where she spent the war years working at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London where she studied European plants. In 1945 she co-wrote The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with C.D. Darlington. In this work she set out her findings on plant polyploidy and its implications for hybridization. After the war till 1951 she worked as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley. But Jawaharlal Nehru was looking for qualified people to set up the institutions of new India, and appealed to her to return and rebuild the Botanical Society of India, which was losing personnel after the exodus of the British. She heeded his appeal and reorganized the BSI, then headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She was officer on special duty at the Regional Research Laboratory at Jammu, where her interest in mountain flora began. She did comparative studies of different regions of the Himalayas and showed how Chinese, Burmese and Malaysian strains of plants had mixed there. She even spent some time at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. She continued in government service till 1970 when she became Professor Emerita at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany at the University of Madras. There she continued to research and publish. Her work ranged over many areas of interest from garden plants to the food species of tribals.

She was a Founder Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935 when the institution was set up by C.V. Raman. In 1956 the University of Michigan conferred an honorary LL.D on her, and in 1957 she was awarded the Padma Shri and made a Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Sciences. In 1999, the E.K. Janaki Ammal Taxonomy Award was instituted in her name and the first award given in 2000. The herbarium at the Regional Research Laboratory, Jammu, where she worked, is now named after her.
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