New book throws light on life, achievements of E. K. Janaki Ammal

It describes how the scientist, often described as India’s first woman botanist, fulfilled her professional dreams, in spite of the gender and caste barriers of her time

November 06, 2022 08:03 pm | Updated 08:11 pm IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

A portrait of eminent botanist Janaki Ammal.

A portrait of eminent botanist Janaki Ammal.

The life and remarkable achievements of E. K. Janaki Ammal, the Kerala-born scientist often described as India’s first woman botanist, have now been detailed in a 400-page book written by a former school teacher.

Born on November 4, 1897, in Thalassery, Edavalath Kakkat Janaki Ammal is highly regarded by the scientific world, having done notable work in the areas of cytogenetics and plant breeding. Yet, even today, this eminent scientist remains relatively unknown in her home state.

The book in English by Nirmala James, E. K. Janaki Ammal: Life and Scientific Contributions (published by Enview Research and Development) was released on the scientist’s 125th birth anniversary at a function organised by the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) under the Botany Department, University of Kerala.

In her work, Ms. James describes how Dr. Janaki Ammal fulfilled her professional dreams, in spite of the gender and caste (she hailed from a Thiyya family) barriers of her time.

E. K. Janaki Ammal: Life and Scientific Contributions is the third book by Ms. James, a resident of Kattayikonam in Thiruvananthapuram district, on Dr. Janaki Ammal. The first two were in Malayalam - a children’s book (2018) published by the State Institute of Children’s Literature, and a bigger work published by the State Institute of Languages in 2019.

‘’Dr. Janaki Ammal’s important work includes that carried out on sugarcane, brinjal and magnolias. She collaborated with C. D. Darlington to bring out the chromosome atlas of cultivated crops and their wild relatives,’‘ notes A. Gangaprasad, CBC director and Professor, Department of Botany, University of Kerala. ‘‘It should be remembered that she accomplished all this in an era when women’s education was not considered important. She received the Padma Shri in 1977. Despite all that, it is sad that she is not well known in her home state as she should be,’‘ Dr. Gangaprasad adds.

And there lies the signficance of Ms. James work. But gathering information about Dr. Janaki Ammal was not an easy task, says Ms. James.

A botany graduate herself, Ms. James says she never heard Dr. Janaki Ammal being mentioned during her own college days. She first came to know of the scientist when she began collecting material for a book on prominent women from Kerala. Later, when she attempted to write books on Dr. Janaki Ammal, she struggled to find literature on her. ‘‘There were many books and articles on her male contemporaries, but nothing on her,’‘ Ms. James, who holds a Master’s in Sociology and B. Ed, said.

But she did not drop her quest. Piece by piece, she put together a picture of Dr. Janaki Ammal, drawing information from official records and with help from the scientist’s family members, and the scientific community.

Dr. Janaki Ammal spent much of her life outside Kerala. Perhaps that is one reason she is not that well known here, says Ms. James. Her book throws light on little-known facets of Dr. Janaki Ammal’s life.

In the 1930s, she had taught botany in Thiruvananthapuram (the Maharaja’s College of Science). ‘‘At the time, she was appointed a member of the Travancore Public Recruitment Committee. She strongly raised her voice for women, arguing that married women should not be disqualified from entering or continuing in service,’‘ says Ms. James.

Nirmala James is the author of 25 books including books for children.

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