“Through the span of a century, men have arisen now an again who, by their ability, their dint of application and inspiration, have shifted facts of science amidst a maze of confusing evidence, and who have thus left an indelible impression upon the sands of time. Such mean have not merely unveiled scientific truths, not only contributed their iota to the sum total of scientific knowledge, but have also added dignity and luster to the science they have pursued. Birbal Sahni was one among such men.
Quoted from “Professor Birbal Sahni” (A booklet), Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, 2002.
My own interest in palaeobotany raises the hope that I may help bring this fascinating subject more prominently to the notice of my countrymen; and perhaps even succeed in including a larger number of them to turn their attention to the rich field that it offers for original investigations.
Birbal Sahni while speaking as President of the Botany Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1920.
Many of the problems of the country could be easily solved if the people had the single minded devotion to duty that marks Dr. Sahni…There is need for reconciling and adjusting one’s mind to the changing times and thinking in a scientific manner. Science alone can help us to understand our problems, for science means seeking the truth. I am, therefore, happy to lay the foundation – stone of this institute which will help the people to take interest in science and create in them a consciousness about science.
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru in his speech while laying the foundation stone of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany on April 3, 1949.
Birbal Sahni, the founder of palaeobotanical research in India, was a dreamer and a visionary. He founded the Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow, which was later renamed as Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany after his death. Sahni was a great teacher. He believed that to be a good teacher one has to be a good researcher. He was a superb communicator of science at all levels. Sahni was a great patriot. To quote one of his students, T. S. Sadasivan: “To his students he was an ideal to be emulated, he was loved and respected. A nationalist to the core, his personality was one that attracted attention of the entire scientific community. He never sought anything from anyone. In fact, he was sought after for his wise Counsel both Administrative and Academics. A man of taste. Everything about him was spick and span; his attire was simple and elegant, a flowing ‘Achkan’, ‘Churidars’ and a Gandhi Cap, all from handspun, handwoven khadi. All this added to his charm. Even after forty years of his passing away, we, the students of this enchanting Guru have nothing but fond memories of the many years we were privileged to spend with such a one. His philosophy of life was one of attached detachment like a true Vedantin, for, that is what in his outlook. Duty was his main forte.”
Birbal Sahni was born on November 14, 1891 at Bhera, a small trading town in the Shahpur District, now a part of West Punjab in Pakistan. Sahni’s ancestors came to Bhera from Dehra Ismail Khan in the North-West Frontier Province of the erstwhile State of Punjab before 1947. The family finally migrated to Lahore. He was the third child of his parents, Ruchi Ram Sahni and Shrimati Iswari Devi Anand. Ruchi Ram Sahni, who played a pioneering role in popularizing science in Punjab was a self-made man. He was a scientist, an innovator, an euthusiastic educationist, a fierce patriot and a devoted social worker. Ruchi Ram was a man of independent thinking and progressive ideas. After saving the India Meteorological Department for about 2 years Ruchi Ram joined the Government College, Lahore from where he retired as Senior Professor of Chemistry in 1918. Ruchi Ram encouraged his children to think and act according to one’s own judgments. Birbal Sahni imbibed a spirit of patriotism from his father.
Sahni had his early education first at the Mission School and then at the Central Model School at Lahore. After completing his school education Sahni joined the Government College at Lahore, where, as mentioned earlier, his father was serving as Professor of Chemistry. His teacher of botany, Professor Shiv Ram Kashyap, a well-known bryologist, influenced him to take botany as his main career. He had developed a strong bond with the plant world. Shakti M. Gupta in her biography of Birbal Sahni has written: “Birbal showed his love for plants at a very young age. The family had got used to his habit of collecting plants to make a herbarium or preserved them in bottles for further study. While a student at Government College, Sahni was in the habit of roaming around in the open space beyond their house, outside the city walls and in the vicinity of Broadlaugh Hall. Often he would uproot a plant that was new to him and bring it home to plant it in the garden.”
After his graduation in 1911 from the Punjab University he proceeded to England, where he entered the Emmanuel College at Cambridge. In 1913 Sahni obtained a first class in Part-I of the Natural Sciences Tripos and he completed the Part-II of the Tripos in 1915. Around the same time he also obtained the BSc Degree of the London University. After obtaining his Tripos in Natural Sciences Sahni started doing research under the inspiring guidance of Professor Albert Charles Seward, an internationally acclaimed palaeobotanist. In 1919, Sahni was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) by the London University for his researches on fossil plants. While he was still a student at Cambridge, Sahni was asked to revise Lowson’s textbook of botany, to suit the requirements of students of botany in India. The Textbook of Botany by Lawson and Sahni became a widely read book both in colleges and universities of India. After a brief period of work at Munich, Germany, under Goebel, a well-known morphologist, Sahni returned to India in 1919. He initially (for about a year) worked as Professor of Botany at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and Punjab University. He then joined the newly created Botany Department of Lucknow University, as its first Professor and Head, a post he held till his death in 1949. He also served as the Head of the Department of Geology of the Lucknow University. Soon after his joining, Sahni made the Department of Botany an active centre of teaching and research. He inspired generations of young botanists throughout his long teaching career at the University. His concern for his students was proverbial.
His research contribution in palaeobotany covered such a vast range that no aspect of palaeobotany in India was left untouched by him. Amongst a large number of fossil plants described by him from Rajmahal Hills of Bihar, was his most remarkable discovery of a new group of fossil gymnosperms, to which he gave the name “Pentoxylae”. Sahni studied Ptilophyllum and other related elements from Rajmahal Hill and found that stem Buaklandia, leaf Ptilophyllum and flower Williamsonia belong to the same plant which he reconstructed and named as Williamsonia sewardiana.
Sahni was greatly interested in archaeology and he published a number of papers in this field. His work on the “Technique of casting coins in ancient India” set a new standard in archaeological research in India. This won him the Nelson Wright Medal of the Numinsmatic Society of India in 1945. He was also interested in all kinds of geological problems. In fact Sahni had acquired a thorough knowledge in geology. He believed that palaeobotanical researches divorced from geological background would lead nowhere. Palaeobotanical studies should be done in relation to the geological and geographical conditions under which the plants lived and died. He himself made important contributions in geological studies. He threw considerable light on problems like the age of the Decan Traps, the Saline Series and the timing of the Himalayan uplift. Because of abiding interest in geology and his fundamental contributions to the study of plant life in the past, Sahni was elected as President of the Geology Section of the Indian Science Congress. Unlike today, in those days to become a sectional president of the Indian Science Congress meant a great honour and recognition.
In September 1939, a Committee of Paeleobotanists working in India was formed. Sahni was its Convener. Its objective was `to co-ordinate the research work done an palaeo botany in India and to issue periodic report’s. The Committee brought out its first report, “Palaeobotany in India” in 1943. The member of the Committee of Palaeobotanists established a Palaeobotanical Society in May 1946 by signing a Memorandum of Association. On June 03, 1946 a Trust was created under the Societies Registraton Act with a nucleus of funds, immovable property, library and fossil collection donated by Sahni and his wife for the promotion of research in paleobotany. The Society was created for foundation of `A Research Institute having a broad international outlook, comprising a museum, a library, a laboratory, residential quarters and auxiliary buildings.” On September 10, 1946 the Governing Body of the Palaeobotanical Society established an Institute. Initially started functioning in a room in the Department of Botany at the University of Lucknow. In September 1948 the institute received a generous gift of an estate comprising a large building on 3.5 acres of land from the Government of Uttar Pradesh. It was situated at 53 University Road, Lucknow. The foundation-stone of the new building of the Institute was laid down by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime-Minister, on April 03, 1949. Sahni in his inaugural speech, which also happened to be his last speech (as he died within a work of the inauguration of the Institute), said: “It is our hope that in this stone a link will have been forged in the chain of international goodwill and cultural cooperation. By laying this foundation-stone you will, therefore, be helping us to achieve, for this young institute, a hopeful future of a broad and truly international outlook which is one of our main objectives. For what is it, after all that pious men worship in a stone which they place in a temple, but an idea, or an ideal, a great truth, a hope or a wish for a higher existence, whether in this world or the next? And what is it that this stone symbolizes? – the great fact of the antiquity of plant life on the globe, the intellect of men ever striving to bring the fact more and more clearly to light, revealing different stages not only in the evolution of the plant kingdom in a more and more orderly and understandable sequence but also the evolution of his own poor understanding of these truths. The very construction of it, the flaws and imperfections in its entire make up, the labour that has gone into its preparation, are all but symbols of our imperfect and helpless efforts at constructing something new, something worthwhile.” Nehru, who himself was a student of science and in which he kept an abiding faith throughout his life, said on the occasion : “I used to attend Professor Seward’s lectures in Botany and I also learnt some Geology at Cambridge. This is one of the reasons for my interest in today’s proceedings. But the real cause for my interest is that Professor Sahni symbolizes in him the kind of scientist that every scientist should be. He has devoted his life with all its energy at his command to his research and most assuredly he will continue to do so. This quality in a man connecting his work in such a devoted manner follows the right path, his work is good, the man is good.”
After sudden death of Sahni, the Governing Body of the Palaeobotanical Society authorized his wife, Sabitri Sahni, to act as Director of the Institute. She was also authorized to look after the duties of the President of the Palaeobotanical Society. She worked hard to realize her husband’s dream. She managed the Institute in its formative yeas (1949 to 1969). The Institute, what it is at present, owes a lot to her courage against heavy odds. Commenting on Mrs. Sahni’s contribution Shakti M. Gupta wrote: “The Palaeobotanical Institute that Dr. Sahni had toiled so hard to bring to life was lifetime mission for him and he had conceived the idea of starting such an institute in mid-thirties. But even though he sowed the seeds of the institute, he was not destined to see it flower. The task of putting the Institute on a sound footing and making it recognized internationally was left to his wife, Mrs. Savitri Sahni. She has done a commendable job. The institute, what it is today, owes a lot to her courage against heavy odds. Professor Sahni’s last words were addressed to he, ‘Nourish the Institute.’”
By the end of 1952 the major part of the building was ready. It was opened by Nehru, who had also laid its foundation-stone in 1949. While opening the new building of the Institute, Nehru said : “The progress in scientific knowledge of any country opens the minds of its people and this is the advantage that counts in the ultimate analysis. A big country has many advantages and disadvantages. A disadvantage is that being self-sufficient, its people become introvert and do not like to learn from people of other countries. This closes their minds and ultimately, they become narrow minded. This is the most harmful attitude that any nation can develop. The very fact that a large number of scientists have come from foreign countries specially to attended his function shows the regard in which Dr. Sahni is held in the scientific world. It is a misfortune that he died just after starting this institute and in an early age. I was impressed by Dr. Sahni’s sincerity. I was attracted by the proposal put by Dr. Sahni for building a research Institute for Paleobotany partly because of his interest in the subject that he had developed during his stay at Cambridge, but mainly due to his personality. He was a balanced man, a man of even temper like every great scientist. Such men are always few.”
In November 1969 the Palaeobotanical Society divested its possession of the Institute and transferred its assets to Birbal Institute of Plaeobotany Society whereby the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaebotany came under the management of its new Governing Body under the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.
Besides his deep interest in science, Sahni pursued his other hobbies. Shakti M. Gupta wrote: “Not many are aware of Professor Sahni’s deep interest in the arts. He was very fond of music and could play the sitar and the violin. Hisone great hobby was drawing and clay-modelling and whatever time permitted, he loved a game of chess. From an very early age he was fond of games and retained this interest in sports till late in life. At school and college, he was keen on hockey and tennis and also represented these institutions in the hockey Xis. Even at Cambridge he represented India Majlis at tennis and played against the Oxford Majlis.
Sahni received a number of awards and prizes in recognition of his significant research contributions. He was the recepient of the Barclay Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1936, the Nelson Wright Medal of the Numismatic Society of India in 1945 and Sir C. R. Reddy National Prize in 1947. Sahni was elected a Fellow of theGeological Society of Great Britain. He also served on the Editorial Board of the botanical journal Chronica Botanica. He was the Vice President of the Palaeobotany Sections of the Fifth and Sixth International Botanical Congresses in 1930 and 1935 held at Cambridge and Amsterdam respectively. In 1936 Sahni was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was the first Indian botanist to be elected by the Royal Society. Professor Seward, who proposed Sahni’s name, wrote Sahni affectionately: “On Thursday last at a meeting of the Council of the Royal Society your name was included in the list of New Fellows. It is with no ordinary pleasure that I send my heartiest congratulation…It did give me extraordinary pleasure when I found the Botanical Committee agreed with me about yourself. May you long enjoy the position which you so thoroughly deserve”. Sahni was the General President of the Indian Science Congress in 1940. He was twice the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad. Sahni was a founder member of the Indian Botanical Society. He also served as its President. Sahni was elected an Honorary President of the International Botanical Congress held at Stckholm in 1950. However, his untimely death prevented him from being physically present there.
Sahni died on the night of 9th-10th April, 1949 within less than a week of the foundation-stone laying ceremony of his institute.
We would like to end this article by quoting from an obutuary written by one of Sahni’s students, Professor T. S. Sadasivan: “A celebrated botanist has passed away in the wake of national exuberance and I firmly believe that posterity will classProfessor Sahni with Engler, Strasburgor, Goebel, Sachs and de Bary of Germany, Guillermond of France and Scott, Seward and Bower of the United Kingdom, for his outlook like these men of science was truly.