Saturday, September 24, 2016

Janaki Ammal's last day in the USA

A letter dated May 8th, 1931 from Cambridge (in USA) to Cobb Blanchard is a short letter. Janaki Ammal (JA for short), is happy to be spending her time in this "interesting part" of the country. She also refers to the fact that she has not had time to think about Ann Arbor after leaving and regrets at having "left many a thing unfinished and undone."

Just 3 days before this, May 5th, 1931 is a type written, unsigned letter sent to JA. The letter talks about Grace (Cobb's daughter) looking at JA's portrait and recognizing her. It has some more questions about what to do about some refunded money and type writer that was left behind. Cobb thanks JA for a homespun cover that she left for Cobb, remarking that it is "lovely". We further come to know that JA took a bus from Ann Arbor to Washington (for sight seeing) and then onto Cambridge and Boston.  It seems the May 8th letter is a response to the letter sent on May 5th.

On June 8th, 1931, Cobb writes a reply to the May 8th letter. In this they talk about Eileen's accident and hope for her recovery. Cobb talks about various things regarding her family. Its probably worth noting that she refers to her husband Frank being tired due to the extra duties of looking after the children. She also thanks JA for a postcard of sea gulls sent from New York. This letter talks about the third child (a boy) and his arrival into the family.

On June 28th, 1931 JA write a reply to this letter from John Innes Horticultural Institution. As a true cytologist she writes "I am so happy that atleast one of the three has the Y chromosome of the family".  Dorothy and Grace are the older girls referred to in the previous letters. JA is also very happy with atmosphere for working at John Innes. More than anything else, she is impressed by C.D Darlington and writes "is a really brilliant man with a delightful sense of humor and an infinite capacity for talk and discussion." At tea time and lunch, JA has heard about the two books being written by Darlington, one is a text book of cytology and another about travels in Persia.

In the same letter JA talks about having looked at root tips from her egg plants and seeing 46 to 48 chromosomes. She is excited to think that they are tetraploids. Her egg plants here of special importance as they are named "Janaki Brengal" and referred to as her first love in the Michigan Alumnus Volume 42, page 532, who's who. The article in the Michigan Almunus also notes that she lived in the Martha cook building.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Janaki Ammal Correspondence with Cobb Blanchard - Part 1

Have managed to photograph all the correspondence involving Janaki Ammal from the Bentley archives. So i have around 150 pages worth of material to read through and discuss. So, this is going to be spread over numerous blog posts with my own comments and observations. Finally, i hope to put all this information together to paint a picture of Janaki Ammal as seen through these letters.

The first letter i am going to talk about is dated December 24th, 1931 from the Department of Botany, the Presidency college Madras. It is addressed to Frieda Cobb Blanchard, who along with Harley Harris Bartlett worked on evening primrose research. Cobb, earned her doctorate in 1920 while studying Mendelian inheritance in certain strains of Oenothera. This letter is written by Janaki Ammal, after she has returned to India and has taken up a position as a Research Fellow at the Presidency college.

The letter begins by thanking Cobb Blanchard for the data about her Egg plant cultures sent along with the letter. Then she inquires about the little girls (Cobb's daughters). As a Indian, i can appreciate the similarity of life back in 1930's to what we have now when she writes "I led a very gypsy life in Malabar visiting all the members of the E.K clan and being introduced to all the new arrivals". Its hard for me to decipher if this sentence reflects some amusement on her part at having to visit so many members of her Clan.

She writes "I have just fitted up a small cytological lab." Her teachers in Botany, Prof. Tyson and Dr Ekambaram are keen that they perform cytological studies. She is also supposed to guide 3 boys working for their Msc and give a few lectures in Cytology.

Apart from this position, she is also in contact with a Sugar cane expert at the agricultural station in Coimbatore who wants her help in studying the cytology of Indian sugar canes. In November she visited this cane station and fixed (for cytological examination) some material. She also talks about how life in Madras is very interesting and that they are having the "All India Women's Educational Conference". Most of the delegates are being house at the Queen Marry college where she is at that time. Its probably worth noting that the All India Women's Conference was formally registered in 1930. However, i did not find mention of this event in Madras in their history.

The 37's: How i came to find more information about Janaki Ammal

"Rust" - high levels of ferric oxide, led star trek voyager to a old automobile floating through space. They find even more evidence of human objects on a planet, halfway across the universe in the delta quadrant. True to their nature of exploration, they follow these pieces to find the 37. "The 37" are actually earth humans that were "abducted by aliens" in the 20th century and transported to the delta quadrant. Some of the progeny of these individuals manage to overthrow the alien masters and establish a human civilization in the far off Delta quadrant. While i could begin to wonder if a population from such a small group of people would have enough diversity to sustain a whole new earth, it has to be pointed out that the aliens have abducted very different people, a world war 2 Japanese soldier, a African-American farmer and even Amelia Earhart.

Yes, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean who disappeared leaving behind numerous theories about what happened. This episode of star trek is a fitting tribute to Amelia and her legacy of inspiring generations of men and women that followed. Another lady who was active during the same time, traveled half way across the world, was a scientist of repute, Janaki Ammal. Apart from various academic achievements, a Padma Shri award has been conferred on her by the government of India. Her story is one of pioneering inspiration and grit.

Recently, while walking past the Rackham graduate school (Janaki Ammal was a Barbour scholar at University of Michigan) i was somehow reminded of her. After some digging around,  i came to know that the Bentley archives has maintained some of the correspondence involving her. Hopefully, i will be able to share the details of the contents and discuss some of interesting parts on this blog. The archive managers were super-helpful in finding the material and some of the digitized photographs. Given below are two of the photographs which include Janaki Ammal.

She is rather easy to spot as she is the only Indian lady in both pictures, even without the writing below the second picture.

My hope is to be get hold of the 15 – 20 letters worth of correspondence between Dr. Janaki Ammal and the Blanchard family in Box 5 of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens records and some additional correspondence in Box 11 of the University Herbarium records. It will be especially interesting to read about her experiences during the second world war.