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Spotlight on Janaki Ammal

Janaki Ammal was the first Indian botanist.

She was born on 4th November 1897, in Madras (India). She studied at Sacred Heart Convent School followed by Queen Mary's College in Madras. Presidency College is from where she obtained her degree in Botany (Honours) and moved to the US for further studies and joined University of Michigan with scholarship and obtained her masters degree in botany. She returned to India and started working as a professor in the Women's Christian College but then moved back and returned to the University of Michigan to do her PhD as an Oriental Barbour Fellow. She obtained her PhD in 1931 and her thesis was titled, " Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physalodes".

Later in her life she started working at Sugarcane breeding Institute in Coimbatore and worked with CA Barber. It was in 1939 that she went to Edinburgh for an International Congress of genetics and had to stay there and could not return back to India because of World War II. To this situation she responded in an utter positive way and started working at the John Innes Centre as an assistant cytologist. She worked there for six years and together with CD Darlington she published a Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants as a co-author. She was known for her work and was invited by the Royal Horticulture Society to work at their Wisley campus. At the society she worked on Magnolia flowers and even now the society's campus have the shrubs planted by her and the white flowers are named after her, "Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal ''.

She was then asked to reorganise the Botanical Survey Of India by India's then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and she was appointed as the first director of the Central Botanical Laboratory in Allahabad.

Janaki Ammal , India's first home grown woman scientist, is mentioned among the Indian Americans of the CENTURY in Indian magazine article back in 2000. She has been conferred a DSc (honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan and also the university conferred an honorary LL.D on her and her contributions to botany. She was one of the first women scientists to receive Padma Shri in 1977.

This is the story of an extraordinary Indian woman who came from a patriarchal, conservative society to fulfill her dreams in an age when most Indian women were not accepted by society to go into high school. She set an example and went on to make contributions in her field which are tremendous. Even after she retired she continued to work in the field of Science. At the age of 87, J. Ammal passed away while she was working in her lab. Her obituary says, " She was devoted to her studies and research until the end of her life". For her outstanding work and contribution to science, John Innes Centre in England launched a scholarship for the post graduate students from the developing countries in her name to honor her. She was a an incredible woman in science and a true inspiration and a role model.

With thanks - this article was written by Namita Singh.

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