Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni was an Indian paleobotanist who studied the fossils of the Indian subcontinent.

Updated: July 19, 2020


Birbal Sahni was an Indian paleobotanist who studied the fossils of the Indian subcontinent. He founded the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow in 1946. His major contributions were in the study of the fossil plants of India and in plant evolution. He was also involved in the establishment of Indian science education and served as the President of the National Academy of Sciences, India and as an Honorary President of the International Botanical Congress, Stockholm. He was born on 14th November 1891 and died on 10th April 1949.


Childhood of Birbal Sahni:

Birbal Sahni was born in Bhera, Shahpur District, in today's Pakistani Punjab, on 14 November 1891. He was the third child of Ishwar Devi and the pioneer Indian meteorologist and scientist Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni who lived in Lahore.


Education of Birbal Sahni:

Birbal Sahni received his early education in India at the Mission and Central Model School Lahore, Government College University, Lahore where his father worked, receiving a B.Sc. in 1911 and Punjab University. The family library included books in science, literary classics and he learnt botany under Shiv Ram Kashyap (1882-1934), the "father of Indian bryology" . He followed his brothers to England and graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1914. He later studied under Albert Charles Seward, and was awarded the D.Sc. degree of the University of London in 1919.


Family of Birbal Sahni:

In 1920, Birbal Sahni married Savitri Suri, daughter of Sunder Das Suri an Inspector of Schools in Punjab. Savitri took an interest in his work and was a constant companion.

Some facts about Birbal Sahni:

  • During his stint in England, Birbal Sahni joined Professor Seward to work on a Revision of Indian Gondwana plants (1920, Palaeontologica Indica).
  • In 1919 he briefly worked in Munich with the German plant morphologist Karl Ritter von Goebel.
  • Birbal Sahni returned to India and served as Professor of Botany at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Punjab University for about a year. He was appointed the first Professor and Head of the Botany Department of the Lucknow University in 1921, a position he retained until his death.
  • The University of Cambridge awarded him the degree of Sc. D. in 1929.
  • He was a founder of The Paleobotanical Society which established the Institute of Palaeobotany on 10 September 1946.
  • Birbal Sahni worked on living plants species including Nephrolepsis, Niphobolus, Taxus, Psilotum, Tmesipteris and Acmopyle examining evolutionary trends and geographical distributions.
  • Birbal Sahni recorded foreign pollen in the ovules of living Ginkgo biloba and noted in the New Phytologist (1915), the problem with assuming that fossil pollen in ovules belonged to a single species. Sahni was among the first to suggest a separate order, the Taxales, within the conifers to contain the genera Taxus, Torreya and Cephalotaxus.
  • Birbal Sahni identified Torreyites, a close relative of Torreya, which extended the range of the Taxales into Gondwanaland.
  • He also described Glossopteris in detail and identified differences between the flora of India and Australia with that of China and Sumatra.
  • Birbal Sahni also studied the fossil plants of the Deccan Intertrappean beds. He suggested that the lower Narmada area around Nagpur and Chhindwara was coastal on the basis of fossils that showed a similarity to estuarine palms of the genus Nipa.
  • Birbal Sahni was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (FRS) in 1936, the highest British scientific honour, awarded for the first time to an Indian botanist.
  • He was elected Vice-President, Palaeobotany section, of the 5th and 6th International Botanical Congresses of 1930 and 1935, respectively; General President of the Indian Science Congress for 1940; President, National Academy of Sciences, India, 1937-1939 and 1943-1944.
  • In 1948 he was elected an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Another high honour which came to him was his election as an Honorary President of the International Botanical Congress, Stockholm in 1950.
  • Birbal Sahni received the Nelson Wright Medal in 1945 for his work in numismatics.
  • The Birbal Sahni Gold Medal for students of botany was instituted in his memory.
  • A bust of Sahni is placed in the Geological Survey of India in Calcutta.


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Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni was an Indian paleobotanist who studied the fossils of the Indian subcontinent.