Written by Mandeep Matharu, Yvette Harvey & Matthew Biggs.
These were the words of one of the pioneering plant cytologists, E. K. Janaki Ammal, who worked at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Wisley from 1946-51, and was their first female scientist. She studied the chromosomes of a wide variety of plants from magnolias to eggplants and sugarcane in addition to medicinal plants, leaving numerous scientific papers, herbarium specimens, and a large number of small, round-headed Magnolia on Wisley’s Battleston hill (Gardiner, 2012), including one bearing the name M. kobus ‘Janaki Ammal’, a vigorous, multi-stemmed tree, over 6m tall and wide, producing masses of white flowers over several weeks of Spring (Biggs, 2018).
Although Janaki’s life is documented within a small number of articles about her and her work, very little has been reported about her years at the RHS and we attempt to rectify that here.
The Early Years
Janaki was born in 1897 into a Thiya family of Tellichery (now Thallassery) in Kerala. After finishing school, Janaki achieved a B.A. honours in botany from Queen Mary’s college in Madras. Missionary education provided a way out of caste and race restrictions, especially being a ‘white thiya’, her mother was of mixed race (Damodaran, 2017), which was perceived as a low-caste by others. It was these circumstances that caused Janaki to choose a life of scholarship over marriage.
Blossoming in Madras and further
Whilst working as a lecturer at the Women’s Christian College, Madras in the early 1920s she received a scholarship from Michigan University where she received an MA in 1925 returning again to complete her D.Sc. in 1931, an award that she received for her thesis ‘Chromosome Studies in Nicandra physalodes (Biggs, 2018). She was one of only a few Indian women who achieved a doctorate during this period. On her way back to India in 1931 she spent a year at the John Innes Institute at Merton near London, where her encounter with C. D. Darlington signalled the start of a long scientific friendship.
She made Indian Sugar Sweeter with a Bittersweet Success
Most people in India might not know about Janaki but they have surely tasted the fruits of her labour as she worked on sugarcane genetics at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore between 1934 and 1939. 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 S. spontaneum variety of sugarcane had originated in India. She also produced hybrids between related plants crossing Sugarcane with other members of the grass family like Zea, Sorghum, Imperata and Bamboo (Subramanian, 2007), which had never been done before. During her five year stint in Coimbatore, the famous scientist and Nobel laureate C. V. Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences and selected Janaki as a research fellow in its very first year. However, her status as a single woman from a caste considered backward created irreconcilable problems for Janaki among her male peers at Coimbatore. Facing caste and gender based discrimination, Janaki left for Blitz-ridden London in 1939 where she joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute as an assistant cytologist (Biggs, 2018).
Scientific relations with the UK (1939-1945)
People who met Janaki would describe her as a tall and commanding presence in her prime. Her statuesque presence reminded people of a Buddhist lady monk, but she had also experienced the destruction of war time whilst living in London during the second world war. In later years she vividly recalled diving under her bed during the night bombing but continuing her work the next day, dusting the broken glass off the laboratory shelves (Biggs, 2018).
During her time at the John Innes Institute, Janaki worked with C.D. Darlington and J.B.S. Haldane (who coined the term ‘genetics’). Her chromosome studies and ploidy on a wide range of garden plants were directed to ascertaining the role of hybridisation in the evolution of flowering plants. Janaki and Darlington’s shared passion for genetics resulted in a crucial publication ‘The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’ in 1945. Janaki also worked on the genera Solanum, Datura, Mentha, Cymbopogon and Dioscorea, as well as medicinal and other plants. She had a personal interest in ethnobotany just like her ancestors, who were generally known as Vaidhyars (ethnobotanists who were practitioners of indigenous medicine).
Janaki’s time at the RHS (1946-1951)
Unpublished minutes of both the RHS Council and the Wisley Advisory Committee tell of how the Society head-hunted Janaki in July 1946. With the offer of a salary of £300, time off for a trip to India over the winter of 1946-1947, a microscope loaned from the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and accommodation in the Laboratory, Janaki took up her post on 1st October 1946 and immediately began work. She had been tasked with treating a number of ornamental plants with Colchicine in order to obtain new and improved forms.
Within seven months of arrival the Wisley Advisory Committee reported that:
“Work on colchicine treatment of annual and other plants continues. A new tetraploid has been made in Asparagus and a possible tetraploid in Lilium. A cytological study of the species and cultivated varieties of Asparagus, and a survey of sex development and distribution in the trial plants at Wisley have begun. Cross pollinations have been carried out between Colchicine – induced tetraploids in Clarkia and between various species of Magnolia and Morus. A demonstration of cytological work in progress was given to 40 members of the Gynaecological Society visiting the Gardens.”
Janaki also staged exhibits about her work at RHS Shows including the Chelsea Flower Show.
Janaki took part in further travel on behalf of the Society, speaking at international conferences and also undertaking a plant collecting expedition to Nepal during 1948-49 returning with specimens including Rubus, Iris, Fragaria, Rhododendron and Rosa. She also coached a number of students and interns, including the famous Australian botanist, Constance Eardley. By 1951 the Wisley Cytology department’s visitor book was overflowing with important names, and the accessions register reports the many seeds and plants that were sent to her from abroad.
One of the enduring legacies left of her time at the RHS are the numerous herbarium specimens that she made whilst sampling the ornamental plants in the garden at Wisley. Just before Janaki started working for the RHS, Battleston Hill had been added to the garden, and the minutes of the Wisley Advisory committee show that this area had been targeted for plantings of Kurume azaleas and other rhododendrons. Janaki sampled many of these including Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Koichiro Wada’, the original plant of a taxon that, in 2016, was voted the number one Rhododendron (Top 100 Rhododendrons for the Centenary by the RCM Group). Her sample has become the nomenclatural standard (the definitive example of the name of a cultivar, similar to a Type specimen for the name of a species) for the taxon.
Returning back home
If it had not been for a chance meeting with the then Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first PM) on a plane, it is unlikely that Janaki would have left the gardens of Wisley so swiftly. For Nehru sent her a personal letter requesting that she return to India in 1952 to head the newly formed Botanical Survey of India (BSI). She took on the huge responsibility for the revival of the Botanical Survey and creating the much-desired inventory of the country’s rich plant resources. The reorganisation plan submitted by her was approved in 1954 and since then the survey was strengthened with a focus on undertaking intensive exploration surveys.
Impact of her work
In 1977, Janaki received one of the most prestigious awards from the Government of India, called Padma Shri. She had a great vision for plants and continued working even after her retirement as an Emeritus Scientist in the Centre for Advanced Botany at Madras University. Janaki led a very quiet and ascetic life inspired by the principles of Mahatma Gandhi. She survived the perilous days of world war, bitterly cold weather in the UK and surpassed gender discrimination with sheer strength of will and passion for her work. It’s unfortunate how little we knew about her pioneering work in the field, but it gives hope to see that there is much for us to emulate from her life and work (Subramanian, 2007) . Janaki peacefully passed away at the age of 87 in 1984.
Even today she is remembered and the John Innes Centre offers Janaki Ammal Scholarships to overseas postgraduate research students, who are nationals of eligible developing countries, to help enable them to study for a PhD degree at our institute. Similarly, in recognition of her outstanding work, the Government of India has instituted scholarships in her name.
To promote excellent work in taxonomy and encourage young students and scholars to work in this field, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has created the E. K. Janaki Ammal National Award for Taxonomy in the field (Plants, Animals and Microbiology).
Darlington, C.D. & Janaki Ammal, E.K. (1945). Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants. pp. 397. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.
Gardiner, J. (2012). Magnolias to Usher in Spring. In The Garden (April): 34-39.
The authors would like to thank Vinita Damodaran for her help in this article and also the RHS’s Lindley Library.
Mandeep Matharu (@MandeepMatharu9) and Yvette Harvey (@WSYherbarium) curate the RHS’s herbarium at RHS Garden Wisley. Matthew Biggs (@plantmadman) is a radio personality in the UK, best known for his appearances on the long running BBC Radio 4 programme Gardeners’ Question Time. He has been a professional gardener for over 20 years, and recently published The Secrets of Great Botanists and What They Teach Us About Gardening.