I love hearing people’s stories. There are so many of them in the world, and I enjoy it very much when I come across someone who I haven’t heard of before. I always find it inspiring to hear the tale of their life and, invariably, I learn something new. So I started an illustration project called Have You Heard Of..? to bring more people to light, to tell their stories, and to celebrate lives which might not be known to us.
In this first collection, I’ve found rebels, artists, activists and unstoppable workers for justice. In this instalment I want to introduce you to intrepid botanist Janaki Ammal.
Have you heard of Janaki Ammal, intrepid botanist
Janaki Ammal was born India, in 1897. The daughter of a learned man, Janaki was influenced by her father to enjoy the study of birds and the natural world. Janaki studied for her degree in botany in Madras in 1921, and from there was awarded a scholarship to travel to the US, to gain a master’s degree. A PHD in botany in 1931 was the icing on the cake, and Janaki Ammal was one of the first women from India to achieve it.
In her studies, Janaki had become expert in cytogenetics – the study of chromosomes and cell behaviour. She used her knowledge in the commercial field, figuring out, for example, how to make sugarcane sweeter. I’ll raise a slice of cake to that!
In 1940, Janaki came to the UK, along with her palm squirrel called Kapok. Apparently, Kapok travelled undiscovered in the folds of Janaki’s sari and lived happily at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in London, where Janaki had a job as a researcher.
Another role at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Estate followed, where Janaki had a magnolia variety named after her. I live fairly near Wisley and when the magnolias were in flower just before lockdown, I went to the gardens to have a look at it. I didn’t find it, though I spent a happy hour alone, far from other people, searching and diving into the undergrowth to study the plant labels, with no notion of the social distancing we were all about to endure. I’ll go back next year to look again!
Janaki was truly an adventurer, happy to go her own way and fiercely independent. Highly respected in her field, on her return to India Janaki worked on the Botanical Survey of India. Over the years, her focus evolved from the commercial use of botany to the preservation of indigenous plants.
One of Janaki’s achievements in later years was to lend her reputation to a successful campaign to save Silent Valley in Kerala. The forest was preserved. It was not flooded and made into a lake, but became a national park in 1984.
Janaki Ammal died in 1984, just months before the valley was saved. Her work is a lasting legacy, just as she had wanted.