“It’s important to normalise that women don’t have to compromise on their dreams”

Neha Bhatia, postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, about the trailblazing Indian botanist Janaki Ammal

Janaki Ammal (1897- 1984) was an Indian botanist known for her studies on plant breeding, genetics and cytogenetics. Her research on chromosome numbers in plants was crucial in selecting plants for cross-breeding and developing high-yielding varieties of sugarcane, eggplant, and magnolias.

What is it about Janaki Ammal that particularly resonates with you?

Janaki Ammal was a pioneering Indian female botanist who achieved her professional dreams while overcoming all the gender and caste barriers existing during her time. To me, she has set the most wonderful example of how you should never give up on your dreams and that nothing can stop you from achieving what you want if you are focussed and passionate. According to her niece, Ammal believed that “My work is what will survive.”1 I am very much inspired by her passion, perseverance and her contributions to plant sciences that she has made while remaining a very humble and grounded person.

What were the repercussions of Ammal’s research at the time? How relevant is her work today?

Janaki Ammal was the first Indian woman to obtain a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S. (1931) at a time when most Indian women didn’t make it past high school and one of the few Asian women to be awarded a D.Sc. (honoris causa) by the University of Michigan. She published her Ph.D. thesis titled "Chromosome Studies in Nicandra Physaloides" in 1932. She then returned to India in 1932, joined the Maharaja's College of Science, Trivandrum as a Professor of Botany, and continued her services to science by teaching botany until 1934. In 1934, she joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore where she worked along with Charles Alfred Barber.

Because of her contributions, she is often referred to as the ‘woman who sweetened India's sugar cane'.

Sugar cane was cultivated in India, but it was not as sweet as the imported variety, Saccharum officinarum. The institute was aiming to strengthen India’s native sugarcane crop and believed in Ammal’s expertise in cytogenetics to let her spearhead the project. Ammal performed several crosses, laying down the foundation for cross-breeding experiments in India, which consistently resulted in improved native sugarcane varieties with increased sweetness and better adaptation to Indian environment.  Her work also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane varieties across India. Her remarkable research, which led to better cross-breeds of a sweeter variety therefore contributed to India’s sugarcane independence. Ammal is sometimes referred to as the 'woman who sweetened India's sugar cane'.

In 1940, she moved to the John Innes Horticultural Institute in London, where she studied the origin and evolution of cultivated plants with Cyril Dean Darlington. Her work translated into the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants which she co-authored with Cyril Dean Darlington. Together they had listed the chromosome numbers of around 100,000 plant species. This was unlike any other botanical atlases which, at that time only focused on botanical classification. This work became a very important cytological source of economically relevant plants, providing insights into their breeding and evolutionary patterns. Her tenure at the John Innes Horticultural Institute overlapped with World War II. She reportedly told friends how she would hide under her bed during the night bombings and continue with her research work in the morning after cleaning the broken glass off the shelves. Ammal’s contributions are not just restricted to producing great research. She also showed what level of dedication is required to do great science.

A magnolia species with bright white flower petals has been named in Ammal’s honour: it’s so exciting to think that her name blooms every year in the form of a beautiful flower

In 1946, Ammal joined the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley as a cytologist and a first salaried woman staff member of the society. She investigated the potential botanical applications of colchicine, a chemical mutagen that can double the chromosome number of plants by disrupting mitosis. Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal, a magnolia species with bright white flower petals and purple stamens is one of the beautiful results of her investigations and is named after her. It is so exciting to think that her name blooms every year in the form of a beautiful flower at the world-renowned garden at Wisley.

Her work was recognised by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister after Indian independence from the British rule in 1947. He wanted her to return to India to help improve Indian agriculture. She returned to India in the early 1950s, and was appointed as the first director of the Central Botanical Laboratory of the Government of India at Lucknow. Ammal aimed to create a national platform for genetic studies and collect and survey India’s floral diversity. It was an excellent timing because post-independence, India was still recovering from severe famines and Ammal helped identify and conserve the floral biodiversity of India.

During her scientific journey she was also honoured with several prestigious accolades – becoming Fellow of the Linnean society of London, the Royal Geographical Society, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Royal Asiatic Society, London and the Indian Academy of Sciences.

As a female scientist in India, Ammal not only faced gender discrimination, but also caste discrimination from her colleagues. How did she succeed in forging her own path despite the many restrictions placed upon women in science and in society in general, and possibly particularly in India at that time?

Janaki Ammal faced and fought through many challenges starting from her childhood. In the society where she belonged, she had seen most of her sisters getting married in an arranged marriage system2. When her turn came, she showed the courage to make a different choice. She chose her dreams and education over societal expectations. It was rare for women to choose this route since women and girls were discouraged from higher education, both in India and internationally at that time. It reflects her strong decision-making abilities and clarity in mind.  

At the Sugarcane Breeding institute, Coimbatore, she was also marginalised by caste and faced male prejudice from the male dominant Indian scientific system3. In one of her letters in August, 1938 (Ammal to Darlington, August 8th 1938, Darlington Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford) she mentioned the visit of the biologist Reginald Ruggles Gates at the sugarcane breeding institute

“It has taken seven long months to undo the harm that Gates did in the course of a simple day spent in Coimbatore. Mr Venkatraman (the head of the institute) was completely taken in by the “Professor’s keen interest in the work done at Coimbatore” - his fund of information and his gracious manner hence the doubt expressed not to me but to Venkatraman about the validity of the Saccharum-Zea cross stuck in the expert’s brain and my note to Nature was not sent up to the Director of Agriculture for the necessary permission to publish it outside India - I very nearly decided to leave this station as a result of all this-and life became very complicated-however I refused to be defeated and I am glad to report that Venkatraman is at last convinced that the cross is genuine".” 

Her letter to Nature was finally published in 1938. It must have taken a lot of courage and self-belief when she decided “I refuse to be defeated”!

What inspired you to pursue a career in science? What piqued your interest in plant development biology?

My mother, Neeta Bhatia and my maternal aunt, Meenu Bhatia, who taught me mathematics and Science while I was growing up encouraged me to consider science as a subject for my higher studies. In my school, I realised that I was always very excited about science laboratory classes.

I still remember how amazed I was when I saw chloroplast movements in Hydrilla leaf under the microscope for the first time.

I used to eagerly wait for them since they were only twice a week for an hour each. I was particularly interested in biology. I still remember how amazed I was when I saw chloroplast movements in Hydrilla leaf under the microscope for the first time. I thought it was fascinating!  I then decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Botany. But it was in my masters where I was introduced to the amazing subject of plant development biology. That class used to be a visual treat with beautiful microscopy images and more importantly building concepts about diverse mechanisms underlying plant development. It was there when I learnt about the role of plant hormone auxin and its transport in plant organ development, the work of my PhD supervisor Marcus Heisler.! What fascinates me about plant development is that much of it occurs post-embryonically and so it provides ample chances to help us understand how life around us arises at multiple scales ranging from cells to organisms.

What is it that you love most about science? Was there any project so far you were working on that you loved most?   

What I love about science is knowing the unknown and the possibilities to design approaches for discoveries. It would be very difficult to single out a specific project because I loved every project that I have worked on! Each required asking a different question and developing new skills. However, my current post-doctoral work at the MPIPZ offered something that I would be forever grateful for – viewing developmental biology through the lens of quantitative approaches.

I think it would help to have more women in major roles in STEM fields 

STEM professions are still dominated by men. In your opinion, what needs to happen so that more girls are inspired by STEM subjects, and so that more women go on to careers in STEM fields?

I think what will help here is to have more women in major roles. For example, when I was doing my PhD at EMBL Heidelberg, I saw women in leading roles  – Anne Ephrussi, Developmental Biology Unit and Eileen Furlong, Head of Genome Biology Unit. As an aspiring young researcher, it gave me a lot of inspiration and confidence in seeing that such things are possible.

Do you think we need a structural change in science and academia to increase the proportion of women?  

Yes, I think a focus on team work and collaborative research rather than competition might help ease off some of the pressure and help towards articulating a work life balance, encouraging more women to choose this path.

Do you believe that mentoring programs and/ or women's networks are useful measures? Are there any offers to overcome hurdles for women in science that you found helpful in your own experience?

I think mentoring programmes are very important and they should begin much earlier, in school or university. I remember when I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree, one thing I often heard from my fellow female classmate when discussing our plans for the future was:  “No matter how far we go and how much we study, at the end we have to get married and take care of the family”.
I was lucky to have teachers, family, my supervisors and my partner who always encouraged me to focus on what I want and not give in to the typical stereotypes. I think it is very important to normalise that women don’t have to compromise on their dreams. And this is where early mentoring programmes will help.

What role models do you see for women in science?

I have been inspired by the work and life journey of eminent women scientists in the past – Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Janaki Ammal. In the present time, I would like to mention two names, Anne Ephrussi (EMBL) and  Angela Hay (MPIPZ). I remember in one of her lectures, Anne was narrating her journey and one thing she mentioned has always stayed with me. She said she was offered the position as the head of the Developmental Biology unit very shortly after she had given birth to her child. Taking up such a big role with a new born baby is not easy. She accepted the challenge and we all know how far she has come.  And in my current post doc, I see how Angela, a group leader in the department of Comparative Development and Genetics, continues to do excellent science while balancing her work and professional life. She also makes time to help anyone in the department who will approach her. And all this with a big smile on her face! I think this is wonderful.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – we only learn from them!

If you were to summarize your message for girls and women in STEM, what would that message be?

Believe in yourself and in your goals. Learn to make decisions and saying no. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes as we only learn from them. And one last thing, which I have learnt from my post-doc supervisor Miltos Tsiantis: “Liberate yourself by focussing.”  I think these are very important skills to acquire.

Is there anything else you would like to add about Janaki Ammal?

Yes, one key aspect of her confident personality, as I think, was that Ammal didn’t shy away in maintaining scientific correspondences through letters to her co-workers. Her correspondence with Darlington is preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and provides a great example establishing scientific networks across countries by breaking gender and racial barriers prevalent at her time. Ammal not only made remarkable contributions to the field of plant science, but in her later years, she became a forceful supporter for preserving India’s native plant biodiversity, earning recognition as a pioneer of indigenous approaches to the environment.

Neha Bhatia, thank you so much for this interview!


1) Doctor, Geeta. (2015, June 23). Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, pioneering botanist, cytogeneticist and passionate Gandhian. Scroll.in.


2)      Mc Neill, Leila. (2019, July 31). The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley. Smithsonian Magazine.

3)      Damodaran, Vinita. Jamaki Ammal: My work is what will survive. Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB). Phytopia. 




Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View