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Pioneer of palaeobotany - Birbal Sahni (1891 -1949)

BIRBAL SAHNI was born on November 14, 1891 at Bahera, Shahpur district (now in Pakistan). His father Ruchi Ram was professor of chemistry at the Government College, Lahore. Leading political figures such as Motilal Nehru, Gokhale, Srinivasa Sastri were guests in their Lahore home. Sahni received his early education in the schools at Lahore. He passed out with a high mark in the Intermediate examination of the province andobtained a degree in botany from the Punjab University.

He studied under a great Indian Botanist, Prof. S.R. Kashyap, which association continued in later years. Besides he imbibed a love for Sanskrit, which interest he continued to keep throughout his life. Sahni proceeded to England in 1913 to study for the Natural Science Tripos in the Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

He took the Tripos in 1915, when he was awarded a research studentship. He attended Prof. Albert Seward's lectures and Jawaharlal Nehru was his contemporary here which apparently moulded his scientific career.

A steady stream of scientific papers followed, first paper in 1915 and four more till 1919. This research output culminated in the publication, jointly with J.C. Willis, of Laswon's Textbook of Botany. For his contribution to the study of fossil plants, Sahni received in 1919 from the University of London the D.Sc. degree. The thesis work was published in the Philosophical Transaction (1920), by which Sahni emerged as an original thinker of botany.

Teaching career

He returned home in 1919. He served for an year in Banaras Hindu University, for one more year at the Punjab University. In 1921, Sahni was appointed Professor of Botany at the University of Lucknow, which chair he occupied with distinction till 1949.Sahni did not allow his administrative post of Dean to make any inroads into his teaching. He insisted on small numbers at the M.Sc level, not more than six students; this ensured balanced teaching and inspiration to the young students.

Professor Sahni would not only give lectures to the B.Sc. classes but would also share the load of the practical classes. By this strategy, he could build up a very active school of research in botany. Apart from his profound knowledge of the subject he would draw illustrations as he went along, with excellent sketches drawn with both hands, rapidly on the board. ``What impressed his students most was his lucid style in chaste English with perfect accent on an unfaltering delivery'', recalls his eminent student Prof. T.S. Sadasivan (Madras University).

Critical examination of fossil plants

Sahni's first interest in the rich fossil plants of India dates from 1917, when he, with his Guru Seward, brought out a ``Revision of Indian Gondwana Plants'' (1920). This was the starting point of his determination to devote much of his time to examine critically the collection of fossil plants in the Geological Survey of India. Besides he and his research students discovered many new fossiliferous localities in the country.

A new type of gymnospermous plant of Jurassic age Pentoxyleae was discovered. This was reported at one of the meetings of the Royal Society in 1946. It was acknowledged that Sahni had unearthed a completely new group of organisms of very great morpholigical significance.

During the decade 1940-1949, novel types of plant structures and flora of the Intertrappen beds of the Deccan were reported by Sahni and his research workers. Sahni initiated a new line of research on microfossils and their use in stratigraphical geology.

Fragments of plants and insects appeared to be not older than Tertiary, though geologists considered the rocks to be of Cambrian age. Sahni held the firm belief that fossil evidence was more dependable than evidence from mapping the geological beds.


Professor Sahni was a founder member and later President of the Indian Botanical Society. He was the General President of the Indian Science Congress in 1940. He was a member of the Court of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He was the recipient of several prizes. The Universities of Cambridge, Allahabad and Patna conferred on him the D.Sc degrees (Honoris Causa). International recognition of his work came early in life. He was the Vice-President of the Sixth International Botanical Congress (Palaeobotany) held at Cambridge (1930) and Amsterdam (1935). He was elected President of International Botanical Congress at Stockholm (1950) but fate deprived him of accepting this honour.

The Sahni institute of palaobotany

Professor Sahni founded a trust, to which he bequeathed his private funds, immovable property, his personal library and fossil collection. A nationalist to the core, his personality attracted the attention of academicians and politicians alike. He could get the august presence of Prime Minister Nehru for laying the foundation stone of the building on April 3, 1949.

Within a week, the Founder Director passed away and the Governing Body asked Savitri Sahni to discharge all duties of the Director, which she shouldered with dedication from 1949 to 1969. Jawaharlal Nehru declared the Institute open towards December 1952, when he recalled again about Sahni: ``he was a balanced man, a man of even temper, like every great scientist. Such men are always few''. (Memoirs, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi)

R. Parthasarathy

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