The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley

One of India’s finest plant scientists, Janaki Ammal spurred her country to protect its rich tropical diversity

Ammal Illo
Janaki Ammal was a pioneering botanist who helped identify and conserve the biodiversity of India. John Innes Centre U.K. / Photo Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

In 1970, the Indian government planned to flood 8.3 square kilometers of pristine evergreen tropical forest by building a hydroelectric plant to provide power and jobs to the state of Kerala. And they would have succeeded—if it weren’t for a burgeoning people’s science movement, buttressed by a pioneering female botanist. At 80 years old, Janaki Ammal used her status as a valued national scientist to call for the preservation of this rich hub of biodiversity. Today Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, India, stands as one of the last undisturbed swaths of forest in the country, bursting with lion-tailed macaques, endangered orchids and nearly 1,000 species of endemic flowering plants.

Sometimes called “the first Indian woman botanist,” Ammal leaves her mark in the pages of history as a talented plant scientist who developed several hybrid crop species still grown today, including varieties of sweet sugarcane that India could grow on its own lands instead of importing from abroad. Her memory is preserved in the delicate white magnolias named after her, and a newly developed, yellow-petaled rose hybrid that now blooms in her name. In her later years, she became a forceful advocate for the value and preservation of India’s native plants, earning recognition as a pioneer of indigenous approaches to the environment.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born in 1897, the tenth in a blended family of 19 brothers and sisters in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in the Indian state of Kerala. Her father, a judge in a subordinate court system in Tellicherry, kept a garden in their home and wrote two books on birds in the North Malabar region of India. It was in this environment that Ammal found her affinity for the natural sciences, according to her niece, Geeta Doctor.

As she grew up, Ammal watched as many of her sisters wed through arranged marriages. When her turn came, she made a different choice. Ammal embarked on a life of scholarship over one of matrimony, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras and an honors degree in botany from the Presidency College. It was rare for women to choose this route since women and girls were discouraged from higher education, both in India and internationally. In 1913, literacy among women in India was less than one percent, and fewer than 1,000 women in total were enrolled in school above tenth grade, writes historian of science Vinita Damodaran (and Ammal’s distant relative) in her article “Gender, Race, and Science in Twentieth-Century India.”

After graduating, Ammal taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras before receiving a unique opportunity: to study abroad for free through the Barbour Scholarship, established at the University of Michigan by philanthropist Levi Barbour in 1917 for Asian women to study in the U.S. She joined the botany department as Barbour Scholar at Michigan in 1924. Despite coming to America on a prestigious scholarship, Ammal, like other travelers from the East, was detained in Ellis Island until her immigration status was cleared, her niece writes. But mistaken for an Indian princess with her long dark hair and traditional dress of Indian silks, she was let through. When asked if she was in fact a princess, “I did not deny it,” she said.

During her time at the University of Michigan she focused on plant cytology, the study of genetic composition and patterns of gene expression in plants. She specialized in breeding interspecific hybrids (produced from plants of a different species) and intergeneric hybrids (plants of a different genera within the same family). In 1925, Ammal earned a Masters of Science. In 1931, she received her doctorate, becoming the first Indian woman to receive that degree in botany in the U.S.

Her expertise was of particular interest at the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute in Coimbatore, now the Sugarcane Breeding Institute. The Institute was trying to bolster India’s native sugarcane crop, the sweetest species of which (Saccharum officinarum) they had been importing from the island of Java. With Ammal’s help, the Institute was able to develop and sustain their own sweet sugarcane varieties rather than rely on imports from Indonesia, bolstering India’s sugarcane independence.

Ammal’s research into hybrids helped the Institute identify native plant varieties to cross-breed with Saccharum in order to produce a sugar cane crop better suited for India’s tropical environmental conditions. Ammal crossed dozens of plants to determine which Saccharum hybrids yielded higher sucrose content, providing a foundation for cross-breeding with consistent results for sweetness in home-grown sugarcane. In the process, she also developed several more hybrids from crossing various genera of grasses: Saccharum-Zea, Saccharum-Erianthus, Saccharum-Imperata and Saccharum-Sorghum.

In 1940, Ammal moved to Norfolk, England, to begin work at the John Innes Institute. There she worked closely with geneticist—and eugenicist—Cyril Dean Darlington. Darlington researched the ways that chromosomes influenced heredity, which eventually grew into an interest in eugenics, particularly the role of race in the inheritance of intelligence. With Ammal, however, he mostly worked on plants. After five years of collaboration, the pair coauthored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is still a key text for plant scientists today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about breeding and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley offered Ammal a paid position as a cytologist. She left the John Innes Institute and became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations is the Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal, a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. Though Ammal returned to India around 1950, the seeds she planted put down roots, and the world-renowned garden at Wisley still plays host to Ammal’s namesake every spring when it blooms.

Rose Hybrid
A rose hybrid named in "E.K. Janaki Ammal" in honor of Ammal's life and work. John Innes Centre U.K.

When she returned to India in the early 1950s, she did so at the request of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister after their 1947 independence from British rule. India was recovering from a series of famines, including the Bengal famine of 1943 that killed millions. It was for this reason, Vinita Damodaran tells Smithsonian, that “Nehru was very keen to get [Ammal] back [to India] to improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture.” Nehru made her a government appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 under the oversight of Britain’s Kew Gardens to collect and survey India’s flora.

But Ammal found herself dissatisfied with some of the initiatives that the government had implemented to boost India’s food production. Under the 1940s Grow More Food Campaign, the government reclaimed 25 million acres of land for the cultivation of food, mostly grain and other cereals. “She found the deforestation was getting quite out of hand, quite rampant,” Damodaran says. Damodaran reads from a letter that Ammal sent to Darlington in which she expressed her distress over the extent to which deforestation was destroying India’s native plants: “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.”

At this point, Ammal’s work took a decidedly different turn. After spending decades applying her skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. One of Ammal’s goals for the botanical survey was to house plant specimens that had been collected from across the continent in an herbarium in India. She wanted the BSI to be conducted by Indian scientists and kept for India. But in the 60 years since the British first controlled the BSI, she found not much had changed when the government appointed a European, Hermenegild Santapau, as her director, a position that Damodaran says Ammal “felt had been unjustly denied her.”

In another letter to Darlington she expressed both anger and sadness at the decision to appoint Hermenegild. “I bring you news of a major defeat for botanical science in India,” she wrote. “The Govt. of India has appointed as the chief botanist of India—a man with the Kew tradition and I—the director of the Central Botanical Laboratory must now take orders from him ... Kew has won … and we have lost.” Despite India’s independence from British rule, Britain’s colonization of the country manifested in science.

Ammal believed a truly systematic study of India’s flora could not be done if the specimens were collected by foreign botanists and then studied only in British herbaria. Damodaran explains, “This was critical to her: how do you create a revitalized botanical survey, in terms of both collection and research, that enables you to do this new flora?”

To that end Ammal issued a memorandum on the survey, writing, “The plants collected in India during the last thirty years have been chiefly by foreign botanists and often sponsored by institutions outside India. They are now found in various gardens and herbaria in Europe, so that modern research on the flora of India can be conducted more intensely outside India than within this country.”

This continues to be a problem today. “The largest collection of Indian plants are held there [at the Kew and the Natural History Museum],” Damodaran says, “It’s still quite an imperial institution.”

To preserve Indian plants, Ammal saw the need to value the indigenous knowledge about them. In 1955 she was the only woman to attend an international symposium in Chicago, ironically entitled Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. The Symposium interrogated the various ways that humans were changing the environment in order “to keep abreast of all the means at man’s disposal to affect deliberately or unconsciously the course of his own evolution.” In the room full of mostly white men, she spoke about India’s subsistence economy, the significance of tribal cultures and their cultivation of native plants, and the importance of Indian matrilineal traditions that valued women as managers of property, including a family’s plants—all of which were threatened by the mass-production of cereals.

“It is in this sense,” Damodaran writes, “that one can see Janaki Ammal as pioneering both indigenous and gendered environmental approaches to land use whilst continuing to be a leading national scientist.”

In the later years of her career, Ammal lent her voice to a booming environmental movement called Save Silent Valley, a campaign to stop a hydroelectric project that would flood the Silent Valley forests. By the time she joined protesters and activists, she was an established voice in Indian science, and a scientist emeritus at Madras University’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Botany. Joining the movement was a natural outgrowth of her previous decades of work, bringing full circle a scientific life of systematic study and a love of the natural wonders of her country. “I am about to start a daring feat,” she wrote, again to Darlington. “I have made up my mind to take a chromosome survey of the forest trees of the Silent Valley which is about to be made into a lake by letting in the waters of the river Kunthi.”

Harnessing her scientific expertise, she spearheaded the chromosomal survey of the Valley plants in an effort to preserve the botanical knowledge held there. As part of the larger movement, one of the most significant environmental movements of the 1970s, Ammal was successful: the government abandoned the project, and the forest was declared a national park on November 15, 1984. Unfortunately, Ammal was no longer around to see the triumph. She had died nine months earlier, at 87 years old.

In a 2015 article remembering her aunt, Greeta Doctor wrote that Ammal never liked to talk about herself. Rather, Ammal believed that “My work is what will survive.” She was right: though she is relatively unknown in her country, her story is out there, written in the pages of India’s natural landscape. From the sweetness of India’s sugar and the enduring biodiversity of the Silent Valley to Wiseley’s blooming magnolias, Ammal’s work does not just survive, it thrives.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.