Prof. Birbal Sahni: The Father Figure of Paleobotany in Asia

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Professor Birbal Sahni exemplified genuine excellence in science. It would not be hyperbolic to describe his as the father figure of paleobotany in Asia. He set up an institute in Lucknow which until a few decades ago was regarded as the Mecca of paleobotany all over the world. Here’s a tribute by Prof. Ashoka, on the 69th death anniversary of the great scientist on April 10, exclusively for Different Truths.

Having grown up in Lucknow, I could hardly remain oblivious to one of its most distinguished luminaries. I never had the good fortune of meeting with him but he was always cited as one of the foremost figures in Indian science by all my teachers some of whom had interacted with him.

Professor Birbal Sahni exemplified genuine excellence in science. It would not be hyperbolic to describe his as the father figure of paleobotany in Asia. He set up an institute in Lucknow which until a few decades ago was regarded as the Mecca of paleobotany all over the world.

It is, therefore, somewhat disconcerting to note that the younger generation today seems to have forgotten this giant and is almost completely oblivious of his seminal contributions.

Professor Sahni left this world on the 10th of April 1949. We shall commemorate his 69th death anniversary and it would be apposite to apprise the younger generation of this remarkable figure who lived not too long ago and imbibe valuable lessons from his very remarkable life and his work.

Professor Sahni was born in the part of Punjab, which is in today. His father was a very distinguished academic who rose to become Professor of Chemistry at the very prestigious Government College., Lahore widely regarded as the best institution in that region. Apart from his scientific pursuits, his father was also a staunch nationalist who participated very actively in the freedom movement.

Because of the heavy academic emphasis within his family, he was sent off to Cambridge where a chance encounter with the great Albert Charles Seward changed his life. Seward was a rare polymath who had the highest qualifications in both botany and geology. He encouraged Birbal to move away from the orthodox disciplinary boundaries in his researches.

His doctoral dissertation completed under Seward was of such an erudite quality that it earned him a higher doctorate (Doctor of Science) at a very young age of 27. He was then invited to work in Bavaria with the renowned Karl Ritter von Goebell. Several in Europe had noticed his superlative brilliance as a researcher and expressed a desire to have him on their faculty but his very staunch nationalistic instincts forbade him from extending all those offers any serious consideration.

He returned to India and held professorships in Punjab and then at the Banaras Hindu before taking up the first professorship in botany at the newly formed Lucknow where he remained until his death, in 1949.

Under his stewardship, the department acquired prestige of stratospheric magnitude and it would again not be wrong to say that it was regarded as the premier centre for botany in India. He promoted and encouraged research in all aspects of botany but his main interest was in developing an almost new discipline where he could utilize his training in both botany and geology like his illustrious mentor, Seward. Paleobotany developed as a separate discipline. This was the first full-fledged paleobotany department in the whole of Asia. Sahni had worked on living plants species including Taxus, and Acmopyle examining evolutionary trends and geographical distributions. It was Sahni who suggested that riverbeds in the Vidarbha region showed coastal fossils which suggested its coastal provenance. Today, the institute promotes higher learning in the field of plant fossil research and works in close coordination with various organisations such as Geological Survey of India, Physical Research Laboratory, Oil and Natural Gas , Oil India Limited, Coal India Limited, and Planning and Design Institute.

His work on Homoxylon won him international accolades. By the 1930s, he had acquired a formidable reputation all over the world and leading academics constantly vied to obtain fellowships with him. Such was his reputation that the renowned paleobotanist Chester Arnold spent two years at the Institute almost ten years after he passed away. He was recognised as the most cited botanist in the world in the mid-1940s.

Apart from his paleobotanical pursuits, he was also regarded as the foremost numismatologist of his era with a collection of medieval and ancient coins he had acquired through his paleobotanical excavation work which earned him Nelson Wright Medal of the Numismatic Society of India in 1945 and Sir C. R. Reddy National Prize in 1947. Additionally, he played a major part in giving direction to developing a scientific temper within the country. He served the President of the National Academy of Sciences and presided over the International Botanical Congress in Sweden. Professor Sahni was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society (this columnist being a Fellow himself obtained his biographical details from the Society).

A close friend of Prime Minister Nehru, with whom he shared his birthday, his counsel was very frequently sought. A sudden coronary lead to his untimely death on the 10th of April 1949 just a week after he had managed to get the Prime Minister to inaugurate the new building for his institute.

We shall not see the likes of him again. Let us pay homage to a scientist par excellence and an even more remarkable human being!

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Photos from the Internet

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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