Birbal Sahni
Father of Indian Palaeobotany
1891 - 1949


Birbal Sahni was born 14 November 1891, the third son of Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni and Shrimati Ishwar Devi. He spent part of his childhood near the Salt Range in the Punjab, which was filled with a myriad of fossils and interesting specimens that were to plant the seed for his contributions later in life.

His father was a hardworking, self-made man with a broad view of the world. He lived what he believed and threw off the bonds of caste, spending much of his adult life working for Indian freedom, even when it put him in harm's way or had the potential to cost him his job. Professor Sahni's lived-out convictions sometimes put him in the path of famous beacons of independence, including Motilal Nehru, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Sarojini Naidu.

Birbal Sahni could not but be affected by his father's convictions and passion for freedom, as well as his parents' intense value for education. (Despite their limited means, they sent all five sons to British and European universities, and Birbal's older sister was one of the first women to graduate from Punjab University.) He also developed a love of science through his grandfather, who was an amateur chemist.

In 1920, he married Savitri Suri, who shared an interest in palaeobotany and frequently accompanied him during his field work.

Birbal Sahni: Education

He began college at Government College University in Lahore, where his father worked, but completed his undergraduate degree at Punjab University, where he studied botany. 

He went on to study at Cambridge University and received his degree in 1914. While he was a student at Cambridge, he was charged with revising Lowson's textbook on botany, which was to become one of the most widely used texts on the subject in Indian schools and colleges. 

In 1919, he earned his Doctor of Science degree from the University of London, where he studied under the British botanist and geologist A.C. Seward and worked with him on the Revision of Indian Gondwana Plants.

Career and Honors

Dr. Sahni served briefly as the Professor of Botany at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and at Punjab University. He went on to head the Department of Botany at Lucknow University. An enthusiastic expert on subcontinental botany and paleobotany, Cambridge University recognised his contributions in discovering both a new plant and a new kind of petrified wood, Homoxylon, and was sufficiently impressed to award him an honorary DSc in 1929.

Birbal Sahni was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a prestigious honor, and the first time it had ever been awarded to an Indian botanist. Other honors included:

  • Vice President of the Paleobotany Section for the 5th and 6th International Botanical Conferences (in 1930 and 1935)
  • General President, Indian Science Conference, 1940
  • President, National Academy of Sciences, India for 1937 - 1939 and 1943 - 1944
  • Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

He later was instrumental in founding the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany shortly before his death from a heart attack in 1949. Also, he was elected as Honorary President of the 1950 International Botanical Congress, but he died prior to serving. 

Miscellaneous Facts

Dr. Sahni could play the sitar and violin, model in clay, and enjoyed playing chess, hockey, and tennis.

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