Ponnamperuma: distinguished scientist of Lanka
J. A. K.
Ponnamperuma was born in Galle, Southern Capital of Sri Lanka, on 16th October
1923 to a family distinguished in the field
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
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
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
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
He is the Sri Lankan
scholar best known to the scientific community in every quarter of the world.
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.