Caste. Race. Gender. These were the three categories that, in early twentieth century Madras, combined to determine the boundaries of an individual’s potential. Being of an undesirable categorization in any of these was to experience a sharp curtailing of the personally possible, but in 1897 there was born a person disadvantaged in all three of them – a woman, from a maligned caste, and a mixed race family. She nonetheless rose to become one of India’s most prominent scientists, and a public champion for the preservation of her nation’s natural legacy.
There is nothing about the life of Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) which is not fascinating. Born in the town of Tellicherry in the state of Kerala, her father, E.K. Krishnan, was an amateur ornithologist and professional sub-judge who had nineteen children between his first and second wives, of whom Ammal was the tenth. Her mother, Srimathi Devaki, was the second daughter, born out of wedlock, to a British official named J.C. Hannygnton or Hannynton (depending on the source) and an Indian woman of the Thiyya caste. While Hannynton’s first daughter was placed with a Christian family, the second, Ammal’s mother, refused to be separated from her mother, and went on to become the second wife of E.K. Krishnan, and to give birth to thirteen of his nineteen children.
Janaki Ammal, as a mixed race child in Kerala, could not count on an advantageous, and socially expected, marriage (though many of her sisters did end up in arranged marriages), a hard fact which might have fed into her decision to seek her fulfillment in intellectual achievement. That decision was made perhaps easier by the compounded difficulty of her caste. The Thiyya caste is today categorized by the Indian government as “OBC” or “Other Backwards Class” which denotes any caste that has been historically or currently disadvantaged in terms of education and social opportunities.
Being a girl, of her particular caste, and her particular racial identity, meant that if Ammal was going to make her own future with her mind, she would have to find an educational system that was willing to look past those three strikes on her name. Fortunately, in Kerala there were schools attached to the local Christian mission system which were inclined to do just that, and Ammal was able to attend Sacred Heart Convent, and then to move to Madras and study at Queen Mary’s College, which was founded in 1914, making it the third oldest women’s college in India. In 1921, she went on to take a degree in Botany from Madras University, and received her Master’s Degree two years later.
This was a heady start for any Indian woman, as at the time literacy among Indian women was less than one percent, and in the entire nation fewer than a thousand women were enrolled in any form of post-secondary education, and her career was to become more remarkable still. In the 1890s, University of Michigan regent Levi Balfour had toured the Far East and had been impressed with the medical work being done by women there who were U of M alumni. He decided to form a scholarship specifically for Asian women to study in the United States. Begun unofficially in 1914, the Balfour Scholarship was a sought after chance for professional advancement, with dozens of Indian women applying each year in the 1920s. In 1924, Ammal received the scholarship and left her native country to travel to the United States to further her education. Held up at Ellis Island, she was ultimately admitted to the country when government officials, seeing her traditional Indian silks, assumed she must be an Indian princess, a misconception which, she admitted later, she didn’t feel compelled to deny.
At the University of Michigan, where she received a second Masters Degree in 1926, and a doctorate in 1931, she began specializing in the field that would make her name, the production of interspecific and intergeneric hybrids, which sought to create viable offspring from the crossing of plants of different species and even different genera. It was work that stood her in good stead when, on her way back to India from Michigan, she stopped for a year at the John Innes Institute in England, where Cyril Dean Darlington was creating a revolution in the study of chromosomes and their role in the evolution of species. Darlington was the scientist whose 1932 Recent Advances in Cytology would introduce the startling power of crossing-over (the stage of meiosis when your paternal and maternal chromosomes swap material prior to gamete formation) to create genetic variation and ultimately drive the evolutionary process.
Darlington was a complicated individual whose genius was balanced by deep personal flaws, including a predilection for forming romantic attachments to women subordinates in his lab, including Ammal, a relationship which was over by 1935, leaving him free to marry one of his students in 1937. In the years to come, Darlington recurs in the story of Ammal in the form of a patronizing academic gatekeeper, who wrote to her superiors in India calling her highly competent but hardly capable of brilliant or original thought, a correspondence which Ammal was apparently not aware of, as the two remained in touch over the ensuing decades.
At Innes, Ammal picked up a deeper interest in the interrelation between genetics and evolution, and particularly in what role polyploidy has to play in the development of new species. Polyploidy is the phenomenon whereby an organism has more than two copies of each chromosome in its nucleus. For most sexually reproducing creatures, we carry only two copies of each chromosome, one from our mother and one from our father, but plants, such as the maize studied by Barbara McClintock in the 1940s and 1950s, are able to survive and reproduce with multiple copies of each chromosome. Ammal, while working for the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore in the 1930s, wanted to determine the role that polyploidy played in the fitness and evolutionary potential of plants. Her work with many species of economically and medically important plant species established correlations between polyploidy, hardiness, and agricultural output that would guide her work in developing her own high-yield sugarcane hybrids suitable to India’s climate and which freed India from dependence on Indonesian sugar importation.
Ammal spent the Second World War in England, working at the John Innes Institute again, continuing her cytological researches and compiling, with Darlington, the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which recorded the chromosome number of approximately 100,000 plants, and which continues to serve as a reference for botanists wishing to track the genetic development of plant species and their hybrids across time.
In 1948, Ammal met Jawaharlal Nehru on an airplane flight. Nehru had just become Prime Minister after India’s 1947 independence from Great Britain, and was interested in advancing Indian agriculture through botanical research so as to stave off the massive famines that had haunted India’s history for centuries. In 1955, he extended an invitation to Ammal to direct the Central Botanical Laboratory and lead the restructuring of the Botanical Survey of India which had begun under English auspices in 1890. Suddenly, Ammal was thrust squarely in the center of a titanic debate about how India’s future should unfold. Should India level as much land as possible to make room for more farms and thus ensure a stable food supply, or should it attempt to preserve its natural resources and secure adequate amounts of food by other means?
The government was attached to the former policy, but Ammal believed that the destruction of India’s natural botanical diversity, compounded with the replacement of natively adapted plant life by agricultural monocultures, would work far greater long term damage than they would provide short term boosts to food production. In the 1970s, she was an active participant in the movement to save Silent Valley, a government plan to flood sixty-four square kilometers of evergreen tropical forest to create a hydroelectric plant. Silent Valley would ultimately be declared a protected national park, nine months after Ammal’s death.
Hampered by government officials who promoted less qualified males above her, and devoting increasing amounts of her time to educating India and the world about the need to protect and preserve irreplaceable and potentially beneficial species developed over billions of years of evolution, she nonetheless found time to produce dozens of scientific articles about ethnobotany and the role of polyploidy in the evolutionary development of plants well into her eighties. She was elected to the Indian National Science Academy in 1957, made President of the Botanical Society of India in 1960, received the Indian Botanical Society’s Birbal Sahni Medal in 1961, and was decorated with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honor, in 1977.
Over nearly nine decades of life, Janaki Ammal had risen from total obscurity to a position of national honor and international recognition. Fearless in matters of science, she walked the line between using science to develop India’s economy, and using it to protect India’s natural resources from India’s economy, with a clarity of mission and consistency of intent rarely found. By pure force of personal example, she was able to arrest, in some degree at least, the precipitous forward lurch of a country coming into its own, staying its hand before it sacrificed the totality of its natural bounty on the altar of modernization, while also giving it the genetic wherewithal to compete as an equal in the modern agricultural economy. And perhaps of even greater import, she showed a nation seeking its identity anew after centuries of colonialism what could be achieved by an individual whose race, caste, and gender all spoke against her, but the power of whose mind outshone all attempts to restrain it.
FURTHER READING: There is no monograph about Janaki Ammal, so if you want to learn more about her, you’ll have to reassemble her life from the handful of accounts out there, each of which tells something like sixty percent of her story, requiring you to stitch them together into a cohesive whole. First, there is the biographical memoir of her published by the Indian National Science Academy upon her death, which is a good source for her fields of research but not so much for her life. Secondly, there is the remembrance of Ammal by Geeta Doctor, who was Ammal’s niece and has more to say about her personal characteristics. Thirdly, there is a wonderful piece by Vinita Damodaran about Ammal and her work in the context of Darlington’s research, which can be found here. Fourthly, there is this piece by Leila McNeill, which has more information about Ammal’s significance to the environmental movement.