THE renowned paleobotanist, Birbal Sahni, was born on November 14, 1891 in Shahpur district, now in Pakistan. He was the third son of Ishwari Devi and Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni. He studied at the Government college, Lahore and Punjab University. He graduated form Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1914.
After completion of his education, Birbal Sahni came back to India and worked as professor of Botany at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Punjab University for about a year. In 1920, he married Savitri Suri, who took an interest in his work and was a constant companion.
He studied the fossils of the Indian subcontinent. He was the founder of Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow. Paleobotany is a subject that requires the knowledge of both botany and geology. Birbal Sahni was the first botanist to study extensively about the flora of Indian Gondwana region. Sahni also explored the Raj Mahal Hills in Bihar, which is a treasure house of fossils of ancient plants. Here he discovered some new genus of plants.
Birbal Sahni was not only a botanist by also a geologist. By using simple instruments and his vast knowledge of ancient plants he estimated the age of some old rocks. He showed to the people that the salt range, now in Pakistan Punjab, is 40 to 60 million years old. He found that the Deccan Traps in Madhya Pradesh were of the tertiary period, about 62 million years old. Besides, Sahni took a keen interest in archaeology. One of his investigations led to the discovery of coin moulds in Rohtak in 1936. For his studies on the techniques of casting coins in ancient India he was awarded the Nelson Wright Medal of the Numismatic Society of India.
Being a teacher, Sahni first raised the standard of teaching at the Department of Botany. The Institute of Paleobotany is the first of its kind in the world. Sahni died on the night of April 10, 1949 within less than a week of the foundation stone laying ceremony of his Institute. His wife completed the task he had left undone. The Institute is today known as the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany.