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Words Matter: Janaki Ammal - Cytogenetic Pioneer and Agricultural Revolutionary

Many people of South Asian origin will reflect fondly when remembering sugarcane juice freshly squeezed in a roadside stall in India or the dizzying aroma of a spicy eggplant curry. Especially in countries like India, where agriculture plays a major role in the economic state of the country on a global scale,understanding the properties, applications, and improvements that could be applied to the extremely biologically diverse flora of the region.

One such innovator, Janaki Ammal,not only broke barriers of knowledge, but also of gender stereotypes. Born in 1897 in Tellicherry, Kerala, Janaki Ammal was part of a very large family (six brothers and five sisters), and she, like many other girls in her family and community, was encouraged to pursue fine arts in college. However, Ammal chose to study botany instead, and after receiving Bachelors and honors degrees in India and her Master’s at the University of Michigan, she taught at the Women’s Christian College, Madras. Later on, she returned to UMich as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow and earned her doctorate. This was amazing and extremely out of the ordinary, especially since most girls in Ammal’s time were married by 16, and only some were able to finish high school. My own grandmother, who was born in 1934, had barely finished 10th grade when she was married, and this was the case for most young women, especially in more traditional communities. In addition to being a role model and pioneer for Indian women, Ammal was likely the first woman to earn a PhD in botany in the United States , and one of the few Asian women honored by UMich.

Ammal then returned to India as a Professor of Botany at Maharaja’s College of Science and later worked as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, during which she experimented with various crosses of plants and species. Her notable accomplishment at the Institute was her work on the cytogenetics of sugarcane and its hybrids with other grasses.

During her tenure in London as a cytologist with the Royal Horticultural Society and John Innes Horticultural Institution, she was known for co-authoring “Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants” with C.D. Darlington, as well as establishing the chromosome counts for species of Rhododendron.

When she was invited to return by Jawarhalal Nehru, Ammal became Director-General of the Botanical Survey of India. It was here that she developed several crucial intergeneric hybrids, such as Saccharum x Zea and Saccharum x Sorghum. After her work at the BSI, Ammal continued working at several botanical laboratories all over India, and she died in February 1984.

In an area that was still developing and an era that strongly worked against women of colour, especially from less developed countries, Janaki Ammal sets a clear example of having a successful career with longevity, and ultimately, building yourself through education and experience and using these skills to improve your world.

Written By: Samyukta Iyer

Edited By: Skyler Basco, Jessica Li

Graphic: Vani Thupili

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