Kolkata celebrates botany legend Janaki Ammal with exhibition

Nearly sixty years after she organised the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), botanists and scientists from different disciplines are celebrating the contribution of E.K. Janaki Ammal, the pioneer whose contribution to Indian botanical research remains mostly unknown outside academic circles.

The scientist is credited with putting sweetness in our sugarcane varieties, speaking against the hydro-electric project in Kerala’s Silent Valley and with the phenomenal study of chromosomes of thousands of species of flowering plants titled The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants , which she co-authored with biologist C.D. Darlington.

“At a time when the country is focussing on educating the girl child, we must not forget scientists like Janaki Ammal who choose a life of scholarship over marriage. She was one of the first women scientists to receive the Padma Shri way back in 1977,” BSI Director Paramajit Singh told The Hindu .

Mr. Singh said when the BSI developed a new gallery, it decided to host a year-long exhibition on the life and works of the woman botanist. Interestingly, the exhibition has been housed in the same building where Janaki Ammal worked for several years as the head of the BSI.

Six large blow-ups on her life and her contributions to science, along with several letters presenting anecdotes and highlighting the difficulties the woman scientist had to face during her time, come to the fore at the exhibition.

Male-dominated subject

In one of the letters, dated September 25, 1953, Janaki Ammal wrote to a fellow scientist that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Scientific Research of the Government of India had accepted her scheme for the reorganisation of the BSI.

Science historians say that it was following Janaki Ammal’s memorandum that the BSI was reorganised into four regional centres: Coimbatore (1955), Pune (1955), Shillong (1955) and Dehra Dun (1956), with their headquarters at Calcutta.

A number of communications with scientists and officials highlight her struggle to establish herself as a scientist in what was a male-dominated discipline.

The exhibition always provides certain anecdotes, like how she met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a flight and he persuaded her to come back to India in 1948.

A peek into the life of the scientist, who died on February 7, 1984 while working in her research lab at the University of Madras at 87, is also provided through a number of photographs of her family and friends and colleagues.

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