Cyril Ponnamperuma: distinguished scientist of Lanka

J. A. K. Jayakody

Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma was born in Galle, Southern Capital of Sri Lanka, on 16th October 1923 to a family distinguished in the field of education of the day. Having completed his early education with flying colours at St. Aloysius College, Galle and subsequently at St. Joseph's College, Colombo, young Cyril Ponnamperuma proceeded to India and in 1948 obtained a B A degree in philosophy from the University of Madras.

This ambitious man motivated by the pursuance of knowledge landed in the United Kingdom and registered with Birkbeck College University of London and obtained a B Sc degree in chemistry in the year 1959.

At the same time he had the opportunity to associate with Professor J. D. Bernal, a pioneer and well-known scientist engaged in experiment and research in the field of the origin of life. After his studies at the University of London, he proceeded to America and could receive his doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkley in 1962 under the direction of the Nobel Laureate Professor Melvin Calvin.

According to his colleague Arthur C Clarke and many others of the same calibre "No other scientist of Sri Lankan origin was internationally known and respected as he was. To say the least Professor Ponnamperuma's academic career was long and so distinguished. He had completed over 400 publications and had held innumerable prestigious academic posts during his rather short lifespan.

In 1962, he was honoured with a National Academy of Science resident associateship tenable with NASA at Ames Research Centre and in 1963 he had the opportunity to join NASa's Exobiology Division and take over the helm of the Chemical Evolution Division.

His laboratory studies were focused mainly towards the origin of life but only when he was selected as a principal investigator for analysis of the moon dust in the 'Apollo Programme' his name and photo appeared on the cover-pages of prestigious world class newspapers and magazines such as 'Time' and 'News week' this placed his name on the uppermost rung of the ladder 'fame'.

Thereafter, he closely involved with NASA in the 'Viking' and 'Voyager' programmes and was offered the membership of both the space science advisory council and life sciences Advisory Council of NASA.

'Third World Academy of Sciences' (TWAS) based in Trieste, Italy elected him as its vice president in 1989 and appointed him Chairman of the International Network of Science Centres in selected developing Counties and he also contributed immensely to the Third World Foundation of North America as its Chairman.

He was the first director of the Arthur C Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies in Sri Lanka, and in 1984 Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma was appointed science advisor to the President of Sri Lanka by the late President J. R. Jayewardene. He was so fortunate, indeed, as to be associated with many universities in the USA and other countries. He served as a distinguished Lecturer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences for a considerable period.

The Indian Atomic Energy commission offered him an assignment as a distinguished visiting Professor in 1967. UNESCO appointed him for a period covering 1970-1971 as its Director of Programme for the development of basic research in Sri Lanka. After that, in his endeavour to widen the horizon of knowledge of the fellow human beings the distinguished Academic apex he selected was Maryland University in USA. Since 1971 he provided his yeoman service to that University as the Professor of Chemistry as well as the Director of the laboratory of chemical evolution.

His contribution to the development of International Programmes of that University was acknowledged in deserved manner in January 1991, the first distinguished International Service Award was presented to him by that university. Among the many awards that the Professor Ponnamperuma had received were the first A. L. Oparin Gold Medal for the 'Best sustained Programme' on the origin of life awarded by the International Society for the study of the origin of life in 1980. In recognition of his service to Sri Lanka, he was conferred, 'the Honour of Vidya Jyothy at the 1990 National Day investiture ceremony by President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The presence of this great son of Sri Lanka, was so conspicuous all over the world as to be nominated to the prestigious Pontical Academy of Sciences, a body represented by world-renowned scientists who excelled themselves in the spheres of mathematical and experimental sciences.

The Academy of Creative Endeavours, Moscow, awarded him the Harold Urey Prize and the coveted, academy Medal for his outstanding contribution to the study of the origin of life.

He is the Sri Lankan scholar best known to the scientific community in every quarter of the world.

His active participation in the Sri Lankan science arena began in 1984. When he became the science adviser to late Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardena, on the invitation of the president and within a matter of months he was appointed, Director of the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Mother Lanka was fortunate to have a son who was a serious researcher with highly recognized scientific achievements and dedicated himself for many public causes which were contributory factors to make a difference and foster the economic, social and cultural aspects of the ordinary people, for that matter his organisational abilities and communication skills have been widely acknowledged.

He passed away soon after suffering a heart attack at the Laboratory of Chemical Evolution, University of Maryland USA.

The remains of Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma were flown to Colombo on January 9, 1995.