|Died||7 February 1984 (aged 86)|
Madras, Tamil Nadu
|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
|Awards||Padma Shri 1977|
|Institutions||Madras University, John Innes Centre|
|Thesis||Chromosome Studies in Nicandra physaloides|
Edavalath Kakkat Janaki Ammal (4 November 1897 – 7 February 1984) was an Indian botanist who worked on plant breeding, cytogenetics and phytogeography. Her most notable work involved studies on sugarcane and the eggplant (brinjal). She also worked on the cytogenetics of a range of plants and co-authored the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants (1945) with C.D. Darlington. She took an interest in ethnobotany and plants of medicinal and economic value from the rain forests of Kerala, India. She was awarded Padma Shri by the then prime minister of India in 1977.
Janaki Ammal was born in Thalassery, Kerala on 4 November 1897. Her father was Diwan Bahadur Edavalath Kakkat Krishnan, a sub-judge. Her mother, Devi Kuruvayi, was the daughter of John Child Hannyngton, colonial administrator and Resident at Travancore, and Kunhi Kurumbi Kuruvai. Frank Hannyngton, Indian civil servant and entomologist, was thus the half-brother of Janaki Ammal's mother.
Janaki did her primary schooling at Sacred Heart Convent in Thalassery followed by a bachelor's degree which she obtained from Queen Mary's College, Madras. She obtained an honours degree in botany from Presidency College in Madras (present-day Chennai) and then moved to the University of Michigan in 1924, earning a master's degree in botany in 1926 through the Barbour Scholarship. She returned to India to work as a professor in Women's Christian College in Madras for a few years, then returned to the University of Michigan as an Oriental Barbour Fellow and obtained a PhD in 1931. Her thesis was titled "Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides". The university also awarded her an honorary LLD in 1956.
On her return, she became Professor of Botany at the Maharaja's College of Science in Trivandrum (present-day University College,Trivandrum) and served as an Assistant Professor for two years between 1932 and 1934. Janaki then joined the John Innes Institute in Merton, London, where she worked with C. D. Darlington, who would become a long-term collaborator. She then worked at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore and worked with C.A. Barber. Her worked involved the production of hybrids including several intergeneric crosses including the variety SG 63-32.
In 1939 she attended the 7th International Congress of Genetics, Edinburgh and was forced to stay on due to World War II. She then spent the next six years at the John Innes Centre as an assistant cytologist to C.D. Darlington. Together they published a Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants in 1945. She was invited to work as a cytologist at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley from 1945 to 1951. During this period she studied Magnolias, their cytology and conducted experiment on their hybridization. The Indian government invited her to reorganize the Botanical Survey of India, and she was appointed as the first director of the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. From 1962, she served as an officer on special duty at Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu. She also worked briefly at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay and then settled down in Madras in November 1970, working as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) in Botany, University of Madras. She lived and worked in the centre's Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal until her death in February 1984.
As an expert in cytogenetics, Janaki joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore to work on sugarcane biology. At that time, the sweetest sugarcane in the world was the Saccharum officianarum variety from Papua New Guinea and India imported it from Southeast Asia. In a bid to improve India's indigenous sugarcane varieties, the Sugarcane Breeding Station had been set up at Coimbatore in the early 1920s. By manipulating polyploid cells through cross-breeding of hybrids in the laboratory, Janaki was able to create a high yielding strain of the sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. Her research also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India, and to establish that the Saccharum spontaneum variety of sugarcane had originated in India. However, her status as a single woman from a caste considered backward created irreconcilable problems for Janaki among her male peers at Coimbatore. Impressed by her work, the Royal Horticulture Society invited Janaki to work as an assistant cytologist at their laboratory at the Wisley Garden in Surrey, England.
During the years she spent in England, Janaki 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. At the Society, one of the plants she worked on was the magnolia. To this day, in the society's campus at Wisley there are magnolia shrubs she planted and among them is a variety with small white flowers named after her: Magnolia kobus 'Janaki Ammal'.
Janaki 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. 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, Janaki continued to publish the original findings of her research focusing special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. In the Madras University Field Laboratory where she lived and worked she developed a garden of medicinal plants.
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.
Janaki is mentioned among Indian Americans of the Century in an India Currents magazine article published on 1 January 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?!" Kerala-born Janaki 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, a professor at the Department of Botany.
She 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. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Government of India instituted the National Award of Taxonomy in her name in 2000.
She produced many hybrid brinjal varieties (the Indian name for eggplant).
Two awards were instituted in her name in 1999: EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant Taxonomy and EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Animal Taxonomy. A herbarium with over 25000 plant species in Jammutawi has been named after Janaki Ammal. The John Innes Centre offers a scholarship to PhD students from developing countries in her name.
To honour her work in plant breeding, the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley, U.K.named a variety of Magnolia she created as Magnolia Kobus 'Janaki Ammal'. In 2018, to celebrate her remarkable career and contribution to plant science, two rose breeders, Girija and Viru Viraraghavan bred a new rose variety which they named E.K. Janaki Ammal.
The name Janakia arayalpathra is also after her.
Sonerila janakiana, a species of plant in the family Melastomataceae, is named after her.
Dravidogecko janakiae, a species of geckos found in India is also named after her.
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