Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni

Birbal Sahni
Bust of Birbal Sahni at Birla Industrial & Technological Museum
Born 1891
Behra, Saharanpur District, West Punjab
Died 1949
Citizenship India
Nationality Indian
Fields Paleobotany
Institutions Lucknow
Alma mater Government College University, Lahore,
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Doctoral advisor Professor Seward
Other academic advisors Goebel
Known for Bennettitalean plant, Homoxylon – a new type of petrified wood
Spouse Savitri Suri

Birbal Sahni FRS[1] (14 November 1891 – 10 April 1949) was an Indian paleobotanist who studied the fossils of the Indian subcontinent, was also a geologist who took an interest in archaeology. He founded the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany[2] in Lucknow, India. His greatest contributions lie in the study of botany of the plants of India[3] as well as paleobotany.[4][5] Apart from writing numerous influential papers on these topics he also served as the President of the National Academy of Sciences, India and as an Honorary President of the International Botanical Congress, Stockholm. He died on 10 April 1949.


  • Formative years 1
  • Career 2
  • Recognition 3
  • Contributions and influences 4
  • Selected publications 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Formative years

The third son of Ishwar Devi and Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni, Birbal Sahni was born in Bhera, Shahpur District, West Punjab, on 14 November 1891. Among the frequent guests of his parents were Motilal Nehru, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sarojini Naidu, and Madan Mohan Malaviya.[6] He was also influenced into science by his grandfather who owned a banking business at Dera Ismail Khan and conducted amateur research in chemistry.[1] He got his early education in India at Government College University, Lahore (where his father worked) and Punjab University (1911). He learnt botany under S. R. Kashyap. He graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1914. He later studied under Professor A. C. Seward, and was awarded the DSc degree of the University of London in 1919.


In 1917, Sahni joined Professor Seward to work on a 'Revision of Indian Gondwana plants' (1920, Palaeontologica Indica). In 1919 he briefly worked in Munich under the German plant morphologist Goebel. In 1920 he married Savitri Suri, daughter of Sunder Das Suri who was an Inspector of Schools in Punjab. Savitri took an interest in his work and was a constant companion.[1] 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. The University of Cambridge recognised his researches by the award of the degree of Sc. D. in 1929. In 1932 Palaeontologica Indica included his account of the Bennettitalean plant that he named Williamsonia Sewardi, and another description of a new type of petrified wood, Homoxylon, bearing resemblance to the wood of a living homoxylous angiosperm, but from the Jurassic age.[1] During the following years he not only continued his investigations but collected around him a group of devoted students from all parts of the country and built up a reputation for the University which soon became the first Center for botanical and palaeobotanical investigations in India. Sahni maintained close relations with researchers around the globe, being a friend of Chester A. Arnold, noted American paleobotanist who later served his year in residence from 1958–1959 at the institute.[7] He was a founder of The Paleobotanical Society which established the Institute of Palaeobotany on 10 September 1946 which initially functioned in the Botany Department of Lucknow University but later moved to its present premises at 53 University Road, Lucknow in 1949. On 3 April 1949 the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone of the new building of the Institute. A week later, on 10 April 1949, Sahni succumbed to a heart attack.


Sahni was recognised by several academies and institutions in India and abroad for his research. He 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, but he died before he could serve.

After his demise, Sahni's samadhi was placed within the Institute of Paleobotany as a reminder of his groundbreaking work.

Contributions and influences

  • In their book Historical perspective of early twentieth century Carboniferous paleobotany in North America, William Darrah et al. have mentioned multiple interactions of scientists with Birbal Shani regarding fieldwork.[8]
  • In his speeches, former President of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan has mentioned Birbal Sahni in several contexts, including science, religion etc.[9]
  • The Hindu described Sahni as the "Pioneer of palaeobotany" (in India).[10]
  • In their paper "New interpretations of the earliest conifers", Rothwell have cited from Revision of Indian fossil plants: Part III. Monocotyledons by Dr. Sahni.[4]
  • In their paper Seed plant phylogeny and the origin of angiosperms: An experimental cladistic approach, Dayle and Donohogue have included sections from A petrified Williamsonia by Dr. Sahni.[5]

Selected publications

  • 1915. Foreign pollen in the ovules of Ginkgo and its significance in the study of fossil plants. New Phytol. 14 (4 and 5), 149–151.
  • 1915. The anatomy of Nephrolepis volzibilis J. Sim, with remarks on the biology and morphology of the genus. New Phytol. 14 (8 and 9), 251–274.
  • 1916. The vascular anatomy of the tubers of Nephrolepis. New Phytol. 15 (3 and 4), 72–80.
  • 1917. Observations on the evolution of branching in the Filicales. New Phytol. 16 (1 and 2), 1–23.
  • 1919. (With J. C. WILLIS.) Lawson's text book of botany. London: Univ. Tut. Press.
  • 1919. On an Australian specimen of Clepsydropsis. Ann. Bot. 33 (129), 81–92.
  • 1920. (With A. C. SEWARD) Indian Gondwana plants: a revision. Mem. Geol. Surv. Ind. Pal. Ind. 7 (I), 1–40.
  • 1921. A stem impression from the plant-bearing beds near Khunmu (Kashmir), provisionally referred to Gangamopteris Kashmirensis Seward. Proc. (8th Ind. Sci. Cong. Cal.) Asiat. Sac. Beng. (N.S.), 17 (4), 200.
  • 1921. The present position of Indian Palaeobotany. Pres. Add. 8th Ind. Sci. Cong. Cal. Proc. Asiat. Sac. Bengal (N.S.), 17 (4), 152–175.
  • 1924. On the anatomy of some petrified plants from the Government Museum, Madras. Proc. 11th Ind. Sci. Cong. Bangalore, p. 141.
  • 1925. The ontogeny of vascular plants and the theory of recapitulation. J. Ind. Bat. Soc. 4 (6), 202–216.
  • 1925. (With E. J. BRADSHAW) A fossil tree in the Panchet Series of the Lower Gondwanas near Asansol. Rec. Geol. Surv. Ind. 58 (I), 77–79.
  • 1931. On certain fossil epiphytic ferns found on the stems of the Palaeozoic tree-fern Psaronius. Proc. 18th Ind. Sci. Cong. Nagpur, p. 270.
  • 1931. Materials for a monograph of the Indian petrified palms. Proc. Acad. Sci. U.P. 1, 140–144.
  • 1932. Homoxylon rajmalzalense gen. et sp. nov., a fossil angiospermous wood, devoid of vessels, from the Rajmahal Hills, Behar. Mem. Geol. Sura. Ind. Pal. Ind. 20 (2), 1–19.
  • 1932. A petrified Williamsonia (W. Sewardiana, sp. nov.) from the Rajmahal Hills, India. Mem. Geol. Sura. Ind. Pal. Ind. 20 (3), 1–19.
  • 1933. (With A. R. RAO.) On some Jurassic plants from the Rajmahal hills. J. Asiat. Soc. Bengal (N.S.), 27 (2), 183–208.
  • 1933. Explosive fruits in Viscum japonicum Thunb. J. Ind. Bat. Soc. 12 (2), 96–101.
  • 1934. (With B. P. SRIVASTAVTA) Thee silicified flora of the Deccan Intertrappean Series. Pt. 3. Sausarospermum Fermori. gen. et sp. nov. Proc. 21st Ind. Sci. Cong. Bombay, p. 318.
  • 1934. Dr S. K. Mukerji, F.L.S. (1896–1934). (Obituary.) J. Ind. Bot. Soc. 13 (3), 245–249.
  • 1934. (With A. R. RAO.) Rajmahalia paradoxa gen. et sp. nov. and other Jurassic plants from the Rajmahal hills. Proc. Ind. Acad. Sci. 1 (6), 258–269.
  • 1934. Dr Dukinfied Henry Scott. (Obituary). Curr. Sci. 2 (lo), 392–395.
  • 1934. The Deccan Traps: Are they Cretaceous or Tertiary? Curr. Sci. 3 (lo), 392–395.
  • 1935. The relations of the Indian Gondwana flora with those of Siberia and China. Proc. 2nd Cong. of Curb. Stratig. Heerlen, Holland. Compte Rendti I,517–518.
  • 1935. Homoxylon and related woods and the origin of angiosperms. Proc. 6th Int. Bat. Cong. Amsterdam, 2, 237–238.
  • 1935. The Glossopteris flora in India. Proc. 6th Int. Bat. Cong. Amsterdam, 2, 245–248.
  • 1936. The Karewas of Kashmir. Curr. Sci. 5 (I), 10–16.
  • 1936. The Himalayan uplift since the advent of Man: its culthistorical significance. Curr. Sci. 5 (I), 10–16.
  • 1936. A clay seal and sealing of the Shunga period from the Khokra Kot mound (Rohtak). Curr. Sci. 5 (2), 80–81.
  • 1936. A supposed Sanskrit seal from Rohtak: A correction. Curr. Sci. 5 (4), 206–215.
  • 1936. Wegener's theory of continental drift in the light of palaeobotanical evidence. J. Ind. Bot. Soc. 15 (5), 319–322.
  • 1936. The Gondwana affinities of the Angara flora in the light of geological evidence. Nature, 138 (3499, 720–721.
  • 1937. Speculations on the climates of the Lower Gondwanas of India. Proc. 17th Int. Geol. Cong. Moscow, pp. 217–218.
  • 1937. An appreciation of the late Sir J. C. Bose. Sci. & Cult. 31 (6), 346–347.
  • 1937. Professor K. K. Mathur. (Obituary). Curr. Sci. 5 (7), 365–366.
  • 1937. Revolutions in the plant world. (Pres. Add.) Proc. Nut. Acad. Sci. Ind. 46–60.
  • 1937. The age of the Deccan Trap. (General Discussion.) Proc. 24th Ind. Sci. Cong. Hyderabad, pp. 464–468.
  • 1937. Wegener's theory of continental drift with reference to India and adjacent countries. (General discussion.) Proc. 24th Ind. Sci. Cong. Hyderabad, pp. 502–506.
  • 1938. (With K. P. RODE.)Fossil plants from the Deccan Intertrappean beds at Mohgaon Kalan, C.P., with a note on the geological position of the plant-bearing beds. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. Ind. 7 (3), 165–174.
  • 1938. Recent advances in Indian Palaeobotany. (Pres. Add. Botany Section.) Proc. 25th Ind. Sci. Cong. Jubil. Sess. Calcutta (2), 133–176; and Luck. Univ. Stud. (2), 1–100.
  • 1940. The Deccan Traps: an episode of the Tertiary era. (Gen. Pres. Add.) 27th Ind. Sci. Cong. Mad. (2), pp. 1–21. Prakrati, 3 (I), 15–35. 1944 (Gujrati trans.). Prabuddha Karnataka, 22 (2), 5–19 (Kanares trans. by H. S. Rao).
  • 1941. Permanent labels for microscope slides. Curr. Sci. 10 (1 I), 485–486.
  • 1942. 'A short history of the plant sciences' and 'The cytoplasm of the plant cell'. Reviews. Curr. Sci. 11 (9), 369–372.
  • 1944. (With B. S. TRIVEDI.) The age of the Saline Series in the Punjab Salt Range. Nature, 153, 54.
  • 1945. The technique of casting coins in ancient India. Mem. Numis. Sac. Ind. (I), 1–68.
  • 1945. Obituary Note o


  1. ^ a b c d  
  2. ^ Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, on line.
  3. ^ R. Cuneo, S. Archangelsky (1986). "Ferugliocladaceae, a new conifer family from the Permian of Gondwana". Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 51 (1–3): 3–30.  
  4. ^ a b Rothwell, Gar W (1982). "New interpretations of the earliest conifers". Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 37 (1–2): 7–28.  
  5. ^ a b A. Doyle, James; J. Donoghue, Michael (1986). "Seed plant phylogeny and the origin of angiosperms: An experimental cladistic approach". THE BOTANICAL REVIEW 52 (4): 321–431.  
  6. ^ , No. 7, p.7 (June, 2004) ISSN No. 0972-2718 On line.Newsletter, Birbal Sahni Institute of PaleobotanySunita Khanna, "The Man That Was",
  7. ^ Scott, R.A. (1995). "Chester A. Arnold (1901–1977): Portrait of an American paleobotanist". In W., Culp Darrah. Historical perspective of early twentieth century Carboniferous paleobotany in North America 185. Paul C. Lyons, Elsie Darrah Morey, Robert Herman Wagner. Geological Society of America. pp. 215–224.  
  8. ^ Culp Darrah, William (1995). Historical perspective of early twentieth century Carboniferous paleobotany in North America. Geological Society of America. p. 22.  
  9. ^ Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1960). Occasional speeches and writings, October 1952 – January 1956. Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. p. 216. 
  10. ^ R. Parthasarathy (15 August 2002). "Pioneer of palaeobotany – Birbal Sahni (1891 -1949)".  

External links

  • Birbal Sahni Institute
  • , No. 7, p.7 (June, 2004) ISSN No. 0972-2718 On line.Newsletter, Birbal Sahni Institute of PaleobotanySunita Khanna, “The Man That Was”,