S.K. Jain, PhD, FNA,* a renowned botanist with global recognition and popularly known as the “Father of Indian Ethnobotany,” died peacefully at home due to COVID-19 on April 20, 2021, at age 94. He was born on June 30, 1926, in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, India. He belonged to a farmer’s family in Seohara township, Uttar Pradesh.1-3
In 1946, he received his master’s degree at the University of Allahabad in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. At the university, Jain worked with Professor M.B. Raizada for postgraduate training in plant taxonomy. Then, from 1946 to 1947, he worked at the Division of Mycology and Plant Pathology of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi for postgraduate dissertation work. In 1947, the year India gained independence, Jain started his scientific career as an assistant professor at Meerut College, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, and was there until 1949.
He married Satya Jain, a Hindi scholar, on May 5, 1948. After Meerut College, Jain worked as a paid trainee in plant taxonomy at the Indian Botanic Garden near Kolkata and later at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun (a training institute of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education [ICFRE]) under the guidance of Raizada from 1949 to 1951. There, he met Norman Loftus Bor, ScD, a world-renowned taxonomist on grasses (Poaceae).
Jain served on the editorial staff at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – Publication and Information Directorate in New Delhi (now CSIR – National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources [CSIR – NISCAIR]) from 1951 to 1953 and at CSIR – National Botanical Research Institute (CSIR – NBRI) in Lucknow as senior scientific assistant for the herbarium from 1953 to 1956.
Later, he joined the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) at the Pune Regional Centre as systematic botanist from 1956 to 1960. He also served as economic botanist at BSI Allahabad and Kolkata from 1960 to 1971. This position was recommended by the late E.K. Janaki Ammal, PhD, who was revising the mandate of the BSI. She assigned Jain to carry out research on ethnobotany.
In 1965, Jain earned his doctorate from Pune University under the guidance of Hermenegild Santapau, PhD, a renowned taxonomist who was the director of the BSI. Jain then served at the BSI’s Shillong and Kolkata centers from 1971 to 1977 as deputy director. Jain became the joint director of the BSI’s Kolkata center and then became the director in 1978 until his retirement in June 1984. After retirement, Jain joined the CSIR – NBRI in Lucknow after being awarded a Pitambar Pant National Environment Fellowship from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for a period of three years.
Jain specialized in ethnobotany, medicinal plants, plant taxonomy (particularly floristics, grasses, and orchids [Orchidaceae]), and conservation of endangered taxa. Jain described more than 25 taxa new to science, and one genus and more than 20 species were named after him. He intensively explored all over India, including Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and consulted on most of the major Indian herbaria, as well as some in Australia, China, France, Indonesia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Jain pioneered the Flora of India Scheme in 1977 at the BSI, a major project devoted to inventorying the plant life of India. He launched a research project on endangered and endemic species in India that covered national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Jain also organized the “All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology,” a multi-institutional research project sponsored by what is now the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 1982.
In 1986, Jain was named emeritus scientist by CSIR for his project “Comparative and Deductive Studies in Ethnobotany.” The outcome of this project was his famous book Dictionary of Indian Folk Medicine and Ethnobotany (Deep Publications, 1991). During a turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) patent case in 1995, this publication was used as evidence in US courts and helped India win the case. Two scientists in the United States attempted to register a patent for powdered turmeric for wound healing,4 but the US Patent and Trademark Office revoked the patent after a lengthy legal battle initiated by CSIR on the grounds of turmeric’s longstanding traditional use.
Jain was the founding president of the Society of Ethnobotanists (SEB) in 1980. In 1989, to promote and enrich the field of ethnobotany, he started Ethnobotany, the international journal of the SEB. In 1992, Jain launched three medal awards given by SEB to encourage active ethnobotanists. He organized more than 15 training courses from 1986 to 2004 at various locations to inculcate and promote ethnobotany. In 1994, he organized the IV International Congress on Ethnobiology at CSIR – NBRI, which was attended by more than 300 participants, including 82 foreign delegates.
On August 14, 1995, Jain laid the foundation of the Institute of Ethnobiology (IOE) in Lucknow. He became the first honorary director of IOE. In 2002, IOE was shifted to Jiwaji University, Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. In 2012, it was renamed the S.K. Jain Institute of Ethnobiology to commemorate his significant contributions. Jain helped establish ethnobotany in India and mentored and guided several students in ethnobotany, plant taxonomy, and conservation. His sustained efforts helped various universities include ethnobotany in curricula for graduate, postgraduate, MPhil, and DPhil programs.
Jain received numerous prestigious national and international awards and fellowships, including fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) (1982) and Linnean Society of London; the Panchanan Maheshwari Medal from the Indian Botanical Society (1982); J.W. Harshberger Medal from the SEB (1992); Professor Shyam Bahadur Saksena Memorial Award from INSA (1996); Dr. H. Santapau Medal from the Association for Plant Taxonomy (2002); William Carey Medal (2006); and lifetime achievement awards from the IOE (2013), the Indian Botanical Society (2018), and the BSI (2020).5
He was the first Asian to receive the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award from the Society for Economic Botany in 1999. He published more than 380 research papers and popular articles (including 176 publications in ethnobotany) in national and international journals and magazines, authored/edited more than 52 books, and guided more than 14 doctoral students at various universities.
Jain was invited to lecture at several organizations and universities, including Harvard University. Partly because of his efforts, many funding agencies now regard ethnobotany as a notable area of research. Jain continued to promote ethnobotany until his death. His later ideas about studies on urban ethnobotany were timely and will be carried forward by his disciples. Jain was a source of inspiration, and he had a sharp memory. He remembered most things and was a living encyclopedia.
S.K. Jain is survived by his wife, Satya; three sons, Sunil, Arun, and Yogesh; and six grandchildren.
Anil K. Goel, PhD, is the vice president of the Society of Ethnobotanists, the former chief scientist and head of the Botanic Garden and Floriculture at CSIR – NBRI, Lucknow, and was mentored by S.K. Jain in the areas of ethnobotany, plant taxonomy, and conservation.
- Sikarwar RLS. Dr. Sudhanshu Kumar Jain (A personality) [Hindi]. Vigyan Pragati. June 2017:48-49.
- Saklani AK. A bibliography of Dr. Sudhanshu K. Jain. ISE Newsletter. August 2011;3.
- Jain Vartika. A bibliographic overview of Dr. S.K. Jain’s research work on ethnobotany. Ethnobotany. 2018;29:99-109.
- Jayaraman KS. US patent office withdraws patent on Indian herb. Nature. 1997;6:389. doi: 10.1038/37838.
- Jain Vartika. Two lifetime achievement awards to Dr. S.K. Jain. Ethnobotany. 2018;30:1.