Birbal Sahni: Story of a bright student to a Paleobotanist


A great scientist who lived only for knowledge.

He declined high posts. He was a genius who shone in several spheres. He was a great teacher and a great man.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was free India’s first Minister of Education. He invited a reputed scientist to become a secretary to the Government in the Ministry of Education. The scientist was an able officer and expert educationist. But he declined the offer. He wrote to the minister: ‘I have dedicated my life to the work of a scientific institution. Please do not ask me to undertake any other responsibility.’ A high place in government had no attraction for him.

Birbal Sahni in western outlook

The scientist was Birbal Sahni, a world-famous paleobotanist. Even as a young man, he had no love for an administrative career. He dedicated himself to the cause of science. His interest in the secrets of nature persisted throughout his life. He was as much interested in spreading scientific knowledge as in research. He was a professor at Lucknow University and adored by thousands of students. He pioneered the studies of paleobotany in India.

Paleobotany is the study of fossil plants.

These fossil plants are found in the layers of the earth and certain types of rocks. The study of fossil plants is closely connected with geological and botanical research. Paleobotanical research helps solve the problems connected with the formation of the earth and evolution (gradual development) of plants. It also throws light upon questions of changes in climate in the past. It is said that long, long ago continents moved. Paleobotany helps in the study of this problem. The knowledge of paleobotany also useful in solving certain problems connected with the search for petroleum and coal. Birbal was master of both geology and botany. He was considered foremost among the authorities on paleobotany in the world.

Even as a child Birbal was interested in nature.

Excursions to mountains and the collection of different types of leaves, shells, and stones fascinated him.

The Parents

Birbal was born on 14th November 1891. He was the second son of Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni and Shrimati Ishwar Devi. Then the family was living in Bhera, a small town in Shahapur district (now a part of West Punjab in Pakistan).

Ruchi Ram lost his father in his childhood and suffered much. But he was a brilliant student and won scholarships. He was able to educate himself. He became a Professor of Chemistry in the Lahore Government College.

Ruchi Ram Sahni was a patriot and social reformer. He opposed meaningless customs.

He was one of the leaders of the Brahma Samaj movement in Punjab. He participated in the freedom movement and was more than once about to be arrested. In 1922, he returned the title ‘Rai Bahadur’ conferred upon him by the British government. As a result, the government threatened to stop his pension. His only answer was that he would face all the consequences of his action. His pension was continued.

National leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Motilal Nehru, V.S. Srinivasa Shastri, Sarojini Naidu, and Madan Mohan Malaviya were guests at Ruchi Ram Sahni’s house sometimes. This atmosphere left its impress upon the children of the family. Intense patriotism, generosity, and fearlessness grew in Birbal.

Birbal’s mother Ishwar Devi was a pious lady.

Her one aim in life was to see that her children received the best education. Accordingly, all five sons got educated in European Universities. The education of the daughters was not neglected. Their elder daughter was among the first batch of women to graduate from Punjab University.

Birbal had great respect for his parents. In later years when he spoke of his father, he was proud to call himself a ‘chip of the old block’.

Birbal Sahni with his father

An Earnest Student

Besides his spirit of adventure and love of mischief, Birbal displayed outstanding qualities of leadership even in his childhood. Children recognized him as an impartial arbitrator. If there was any dispute about the ownership of a pencil or a book or about who should switch off the light, his brothers and sisters looked to him for a decision.

When he was fourteen years old, the entire family moved to Murre, near Rawalpindi, for the summer. One fine morning he asked a brother and a sister to go with him. He took a few hand-kerchiefs and one or two small empty tins. They left home quietly without telling anybody. They reached a ravine outside the town. They crossed ditches and boulders and finally reached the stream. There they collected crabs. In the excitement of the chase, all count of time was lost.

When they started on the return journey, it was getting dark. It was very difficult to climb the boulders. Meanwhile, the parents were upset.

Servants were sent out with lamps to look for the children. But no one imagined that they could have gone up to the ravine. It was quite dark when the children reached home, tired hungry and with bleeding feet. But the leader of the team, Birbal, was quite composed.

The father angrily said to him, “Why did you go away without telling anyone—and that with your younger brother and sister?” Birbal calmly answered, “To catch crabs.” The father exclaimed, “Crabs, indeed!” But he checked his angry and said nothing more because he loved adventures. He often took his children with him on excursions to hilly regions, much more dangerous.

Once Birbal accompanied his father to Kotgarh near Tibet at the beginning of September 1908. There they met the famous Swedish scientist Dr. Sven Hedin who was returning after completing his exploration in Tibet. Years later, when Birbal became a famous scientist, the Royal Swedish Academy of sciences felicitated him at a meeting. Among the distinguished invitees was the good old Dr. Sven Hedin. Birbal reminded him of his earlier meeting with Dr. Sven Hedin thirty-eight years before. The old scientist was delighted.

The most notable and thrilling excursion Birbal undertook with his father was to Zozila Pass in 1911. Wearing special footwear made of rope they crossed the Machoi glacier. Looking down they saw the figure of a horse, which seemed to have been carved in ice. The horse had been frozen to death amidst the snow long before. Further, there was an awe-inspiring fissure that gave them a shudder. It was in this area that Birbal found and collected a rare variety of snow alga called red snow. When later in the same year he went to England for higher studies, he took that sample of red snow with him. At Cambridge an eminent paleobotanist, Professor A.C. Seward examined the sample and appreciated Birbal’s interest.

Birbal was not only intelligent but also a hard worker. And he was as interested in the study of languages as in the study of science. He stood first in Sanskrit at the Matriculation Examination of Punjab University. In later years his interest in Sanskrit deepened. He learned German, French and Persian languages also. Birbal studied in Lahore Government College where his father was Professor of Chemistry. Birbal secured the first rank in the sciences at the Intermediate Examination. Under the guidance of Professor Shivram Kashyap of the Botany Department, he acquired a keen interest in the study of botany. Professor Kashyap was an authority on the flora of the Himalayan region. Birbal also made several excursions to the Himalayas. Authoritative books of botany were his invariable companions. Even as a student he had one of the biggest collections of Himalayan plants.

A Fresh Question Paper!

In the B.Sc. Examination Birbal found the questions on botany extremely easy. Immediately he returned the blank answer sheets and went home. He told his father that the questions at the previous examination had just been repeated.

He argued that such a question paper might be an undue advantage to some and an unjust difficulty to others and so it was not a fair test of the student’s knowledge. His father could not decide what to do. It seemed certain that Birbal’s courage would cost him a valuable year in his academic life. But the matter went up to the higher authorities in the university. It was decided that no examiner should be so easy-going as to pick up an earlier question paper and pass it on to the students. A fresh paper was set for Birbal.

In England

Birbal Sahni in 1940s

Birbal passed the B.Sc. Examination in 1911.

His father wished that his intelligent and industrious son should become a government administrator. He had thought of the Indian Civil Service, as a career for Birbal could not like the plan. He said to his father, “I cannot go against your decision. But I am interested in research in botany.” His father accepted his choice and decided to send him to Cambridge for higher studies in botany.

Birbal’s elder brother, Bikram Jit, was studying medicine in London. He took Birbal to Cambridge and got him admitted to Emmanuel College. But within three days Birbal went back to his brother’s room in London. His thoughts had turned homewards. He was on the verge of tears. “I am feeling home-sick,” said Birbal. It was no easy task for Bikram Jit to console him.

Birbal spent that night with his brother. However, Bikram Jit persuaded him to return to Cambridge. Thereafter Birbal resumed his studies and gradually overcome homesickness.

One of the fine traditions of Cambridge University is that of close contact between a student and his teachers. Birbal, a talented young student, received very affectionate treatment from his tutors. He got a B.A. Degree in the Natural Sciences (including geology and botany) in 1914. Soon he settled down to research under the inspiring guidance of Professor A.C. Seward. Professor Seward was one of the greatest authorities in this field of study. Under the influence of the great master, Birbal learned rapidly and gained insight into the morphology of living as well as fossil plants.

Begins Research

Birbal published his first two research papers in 1915, on some plants belonging to South France and Malaysia. He received the B.Sc. Degree of London University the same year. Two years later the same University awarded the Master of Science Degree. Meanwhile, one of his research papers brought him the Sudbury— Handyman Award. He attended the summer semesters at Munich (in Germany) under Professor K. Goebel, the renowned German plant morphologist. By then, Birbal’s knowledge of experience in the study of plants was fully recognized. He was asked to revise Lowson’s textbook of Botany, adding information about Indian plants, so those students in India could use the book. He did it efficiently and the book became very useful to the students of schools and colleges in India.

R.H. Compton, a botanist of South Africa, had collected several rare species of plants in some islands of the Pacific. Though they were fragmentary and poorly preserved Birbal made a fairly exhaustive study of those plants. In 1919 London University awarded him the Doctorate in Science for his research on fossil plants. Birbal returned to India.

Birbal’s father had retired from service while Birbal was still at Cambridge. He went to England. He joined Professor Ernest Rutherford, a Noble-Prize winner, in his research on radioactivity. Birbal helped his father in photographic and other connected work though he had himself to take the Degree Examination the same year.

On Professor Seward’s suggestion, Birbal examined some specimens of fossil plants brought from different parts of Australia and wrote papers about them. He collaborated with Professor Seward in the study of Indian Gondwana Plants and together they published the book, ‘Indian Gondwana Plants: A Revision’ in 1920.

Birbal Sahni observing using microscope

Gondwana or Gondaranya is the region where the Gondas lived. They were living in Central India. Millions of years ago, the formation of continents and oceans was different from what it is today. The Himalayan region was an ocean. South America, Africa, Australia, and India together formed a single continent is usually referred to as Gondwana land because extensive evidence proving its existence is found in the Gondwana region of Madhya Pradesh (in Central India). A hundred-fifty million years ago were formed.

Professor Seward had built up a vast collection of fossil plants belonging to Gondwana land from the Geological Survey of India. For thirty years scientists had not taken much interest in the study of Gondwana plants. Seward and Sahni’s work on Indian Gondwana plants became a landmark in Indian Geology and Plants continued all through his life. To him, plant fossils had a deep significance; their geological background and implications were always present in his mind. He often remarked, “Fossil plants represent the debt that botany owes to geology.”

Back in India

Back in India Birbal Sahni served as Professor of Botany for one year in each of the Universities of Benaras and Punjab. In 1920, he married Savithri, the daughter of Sundardas Suri, a close friend of his father. She was a science graduate and a lady of great refinement. She became his true companion and was constantly with him whether on a study tour or a visit abroad. She completely merged herself in his life and work.

Until the year 1920, plant fossils collected by the Geological Survey of India during field investigation were sent abroad for examination by foreign experts. In 1920, Professor Seward declined to undertake such an examination saying that the work should go to competent Indian scientist namely Birbal Sahni for investigation. He had a close association with the department for about twelve years. Later the department commemorated his long and enduring association by erecting a bust of him in the Gondwana Gallery of its Indian Museum in Calcutta.

In 1921, Birbal Sahni was appointed as Professor and Head of the Department of Botany at the Newborn University of Lucknow. In the same year, he got an MA Degree from Cambridge University.


At Lucknow, he organized the Department of Botany on the same lines as at Cambridge. He believed that the senior-most teachers should teach the junior classes to a certain extent. This makes for better discipline and balanced and methodical tuition. So he always insisted on lecturing to the B.Sc. classes. He used to talk to the students about the latest developments in the field. He gave the post-graduate students ample liberty and scope to widen their knowledge. He wanted them to learn to think for themselves. He regularly examined their work and never minced words if the criticism was called for. He used to make even the unwilling students work hard. His name attracted students from all parts of India and even from abroad.

Guiding Research

Despite his heavy teaching schedule, he steadily continued his research work. In recognition of the outstanding quality of his work, he was awarded the Doctorate of Science (Sc.D.) by Cambridge University in 1929. He was the first Indian scientist to receive that honor.

Research students were admitted to the Botany Department of Lucknow University in 1933. And from then he became an unfailing fountain of inspiration to students doing research. Colleagues and fellow-scientists also sought his advice in their work. He was exceedingly critical in the examination of the student’s work and could very swiftly and accurately judge its real worth. In the presentation of papers, he commended a logical and direct statement of facts.

He often said: “Know what you have to say; and say it straight.” He had perfect command of language. He also used to teach German and French to his post-graduate students after college hours.

Devotion to Work

Birbal Sahni a hard worker

In 1930, Birbal Sahni became a member of the Executive Council of Lucknow University.
Three years later he was elected the Dean of the Faculty of Science. He held this position until his death.

Birbal Sahni believed that a student who had studied both botany and geology would make a better paleobotanist. With the inauguration of the Department of Geology in the university in 1943, he was appointed as the head of that department also. He was free from snobbery and officiousness. He was an excellent chief to work with. If he wanted the service of his junior colleagues, he never summoned them to his room; insisted on hard work and cared for quality, too. He used to quote the saying, “Art is long and time is fleeting”, and “Hard work killed nobody”. He was unwilling to waste even the time spent on journeys. He found time to read and take notes while traveling.

Birbal Sahni’s love of research and desire to encourage it found expression in his instituting a Research Prize in the name of his father. ‘The Ruchi Ram Sahni Research Prize’ is awarded every year for the best work in botanical research.

Professor Sahni’s monthly allowance as the Dean of the Faculty of Science formed the funds for this prize.

In the Department of Botany, the number of students increased every year, and teachers had only a small room. Sahni had got a room of his own. He used to sit in the Botany Museum.

Once a guest from abroad visited the department. On being shown around the department, he casually asked, “Where does Professor Sahni work?” He was shown a table in the corner of the museum and he exclaimed: “What! Doesn’t Professor Sahni have a room of his own?” Then he added smilingly, “Yes, great scientists all the world over have worked only in garrets.”

The Himalayas

The Himalayas always attracted Birbal Sahni.

He undertook several visits and studied the Himalayan flora. He also made an extensive study of the Rajamahal Hills of Bihar. Examining the fossil plants of the Deccan Intertrappean he put forward the theory that the formation of that layer could not have taken place earlier than sixty-five million years.

From the nature of microfossils in the saline series of the Punjab Salt Range, he concluded that the age of the series could be fifty to sixty million years. His studies added to the knowledge of the formation of the Himalayas. He made a correlated study of some plants in Kashmir, Burma, and Malaysia. On behalf of the Burma Oil Company, Birbal Sahni researched the microflora of the Assam region.

The Study of Coins

Birbal’s interest in science was very wide. Once he found some ancient coin molds near Rohtak in Haryana. He studied those molds and published the results in a mastery note entitled ‘The Technique of Casting Coins in Ancient India’. It set a new standard of research on the subject. He compared his findings with numismatic knowledge (that is, what we know about coins) of ancient Rome and China. He concluded that the Indian technique was one or two centuries older (about the first century BC and more sophisticated. Later he examined coins and molds obtained in eleven different places including Takshashila and Nalanda in the North and Hyderabad in the South. They belong to different periods from the third century BC to the eleventh century AD. Birbal’s discoveries had great archaeological significance also. The Numismatic Society of India awarded him the Nelson Wright Medal in 1945.

A Shower of Honors

Excellent speech by Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni joined hands with some other scientists to form the Indian Botanical Society in 1921. In 1924, he became its president. He presided over the Botany Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1912, within just two years of his return from Cambridge. Again he presided over the Geology Section in 1926 and the Botany Section for the second time at the Silver Jubilee Session of the Science Congress in 1938.

He had the honor of presiding over the Science Congress in 1940.

Birbal Sahni was twice president of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Fellow and Vice-President of both the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Institute of Sciences. He was also the Vice-President of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science.

He was a member of the Governing Council of the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, and a Fellow of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. He was representative of the Inter-University Board on the Council of Agricultural Research. Birbal Sahni served the cause of science in India by associating himself with many other learned bodies also.

Many Indian universities honored him with doctorates and several awards. He was made Honorary Professor of Botany at the Benaras Hindu University. He was awarded the Barclay Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal for outstanding research in the biological sciences.

Birbal Sahni represented India at the Conference of Scientists convened by the Royal Society in 1945. He was deputed by the Government of India in 1947 to visit research centers in Europe and America. He was twice the Vice-President of the Paleobotany Sections of the International Congresses in 1930 and 1935. He served on the Editorial Board of the International Botanical Journal, ‘Chronica Botanica’. He was elected as one of the vice-presidents of the International Paleobotanical Union. He was an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1936 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. This fellowship is considered the highest distinction in the field of science. Birbal was the fifth Indian to receive this honor.

A Source of Strength

Several of Birbal Sahni’s students have won an international reputation in different branches of botany. The Sahni’s were like the elders of a family to the students. When a student fell ill and spent a long time in a hospital, the Sahni visited him every day. When he was discharged from the hospital, they took him home and nursed him. They were very hospitable and helpful to students coming from distant places or abroad, and made them feel perfectly at home.

Sahni’s house was in Lucknow on the bank of the river Gomuti. With his artistic bent of mind, he had planned his house and garden, without the aid of an architect. His friends, from various walks of life, scientists, philosophers, businessmen, artists, and students used to visit him. All of them cherished the warm hospitality of Birbal and Savithri Sahni. A few minutes with him meant a fresh store of inspiration and encouragement to students and colleagues. His research students had free access to his library.

Birbal Sahni on the way to Jurassic Rajamahal

But as they in number, the books were occasional y misplaced. He was very methodical and disliked loneliness. He used to remark: “Disorder-liness is becoming order with us.” Nevertheless, he used to say, “I spend my happiest hours in the company of my research students.” He mingled with his students freely and also participated in the social and athletic activities of the students. Once at a session of the Indian Science Congress, another great scientist Sir C.V. Raman referred to Birbal Sahni as a ‘restless spirit’ and also remarked, “Sahni is the most handsome F.R.S. (Fellow of Royal Society) in India.”

For the Research Institute, Birbal was visionary. The idea of founding an institution of paleobotany took shape in his mind as early in 1929. He built up a vast collection of fossil plants through fieldwork and exchange. He built up a very fine library of Palaeobotanical books. He sought government help to establish a museum of paleobotany. His request failed.

In September 1939, he formed a committee of paleobotanists in India. With time, this committee published reports of Paleobotanical activities in India. In June 1946, the Palaeobotanical Society was founded in Lucknow. Bridal Sahni and Savithri Sahni dedicated their vast collection of fossil plants, their library and their money to the society. The society aimed to sponsor an Institute of Palaeobotany. Savithri Sahni was elected president of the society for life. The Palaeobotanical Institute was founded on 10th September 1946. In the earlier days, it was housed in the Botany Department of Lucknow University. Birbal Sahni was its Honorary Director. He worked day and night to place the institution on a firm foundation. The next important step towards the realization of his cherished dream was the lying of the foundation stone of the new building of the institute on 3rd April 1949. The cornerstone of the building was specially prepared by putting together some rare specimens of stones and fossil plants collected in various parts of the world. It was made in the institute itself. The pieces making up this cornerstone belonged to a period up to six hundred millions of years before the dawn of history.

He Remains an Inspiration

The mission was being fulfilled, but the leader was snatched away by cruel fate. The stress and strain of establishing the institution caused irreparable damage to his health. On the evening of 8th April 1949, he had a severe heart attack. He died in the early hours of 10th April, just a week after the foundation stone of the institution was laid. He was only 57.

Birbal Sahni had been elected to preside over the International Botanical Congress, which was to meet in July 1950. But alas, the world lost him prematurely.

Above all, what a cruel stroke for Savithri Sahni! The Sahni’s had no children. But Savithri Sahni was a brave lady. She decided to fulfill the lofty ideals of her illustrious husband and to devote the rest of her life to the development of the institution. She was elected the Director of the Institution which was declared open by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru towards the end of 1952. The institute was named ‘Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany’.

A Rare Personality

Birbal Sahni was a combination of genius and graciousness. In his college days, one of his close friends was declared unsuccessful in the Intermediate Examination. Birbal felt extremely sorry. Though he had attained distinction, Birbal wept like a child and refused to eat. His condition caused extreme anxiety to the parents.

It took a few days for Birbal to overcome the grief. His keen sense of fellowship was revealed in many incidents.

Once, his father took the members of the family on a visit to the Himalayas. The road from Narkand to Baghi lay through a thick forest infested with bears and other wild animals. They had started from one camp to the next camp late one evening. By the time they reached the edge of the forest darkness was falling fast. Then they found that one of their porters had not come with them. That porter had an attack of malaria and he was alone in the jungle. Immediately Birbal went back to the forest and joined the porter.

Birbal Sahni helped Ramanujam

Among Birbal’s fellow Indian students at Cambridge were the scholar Sripraksha, who later became a national leader, C.D. Deshmukh, later a Finance Minister of India, and S.Ramanujam, the mathematical genius. When Ramanujam was ill in Cambridge, Birbal nursed him for some days.

Birbal Sahni suffered in the suffering of others.

Associations with him not only made the younger people better scientists but also better men and women.

Birbal Sahni was always neatly dressed.

Earlier, he used to be dressed in a silk suit and turban. But after his academic tour of Europe in 1930-31, he changed his style. When he went to Lucknow University after the tour, the students and colleagues were quite surprised for a moment. Birbal Sahni had put on a cap and a gracefully flowing Khadi sherwani in the typical Indian style. Students greeted him in the Indian style too and offered him flowers and garlands.

Birbal Sahni in Khadi

Birbal Sahni blushed. He said, “You have flattered immensely. Now let us get to business.” Once at a meeting in Madras, Birbal Sahni declared, “I never use clothes made in foreign countries.” The British Governor of Madras was in the chair. But Birbal Sahni was a courageous and stout-hearted patriot to the tips of his fingers. He often sent a substantial monetary contribution to the leaders fighting for the freedom of the country.

In spite of his academic interests, Birbal Sahni enjoyed refined pleasures. He was fond of games. He represented his school and his college in hockey matches and was also very keen on tennis when in college. At Cambridge, he was included in the university tennis team. He was a keen player of chess. He drew and painted occasionally. He was an enthusiastic clay modeler and collector of stamps.

Once, the Indian students at Cambridge staged a fancy dress celebration. Birbal was a participant. He turned up as a ‘ Sadhu’; a role, which was not, altogether unrelated to his inner self.

Birbal Sahni was a gifted speaker. His lectures were interesting. He was able to speak for hours at a stretch using both hands to draw neat sketches swiftly. His agility often left the audience amazed. In 1947, meetings of the American Association for the advancement of science were held in Chicago. Then, Birbal Sahni was in Chicago for a different purpose. Through his name was not on the agenda he was requested to be a guest speaker twice. At the meeting, routine addresses were a dull affair and on many occasions, people used to sleep or left the hall. But when Birbal Sahni spoke there were big crowds and he was heard with rapt attention.

No single botanist in India has contributed so much to botany as Professor Birbal Sahni did in his all too brief life. He was one of the few all-rounders in botany. Tempting opportunities in various directions came to him throughout his life, but he remained steadfast in his devotion to the branch of science he had chosen.