Professor Emeritus B. A. Abeywickrama


During the morning of 2nd May, 2011 a Colossus of Sri Lankan Botany passed away. Emeritus Professor Bartholomeusz Aristides Abeywickrama, "Bernie" to his contemporaries and "Apeywickrama" to his devoted students, "Abey" to all others, ended an eventful life spanning 91 years.

From his young years at St Aloysius, Galle and later, Royal College, Colombo BAA was an outstanding student recipient of many prizes and awards. Entering University College, Colombo in 1937 he won a Cambridge Studentship, the Sir Marcus Fernando Scholarship and an entrance scholarship in Botany. He graduated in 1941 with the B.Sc (London) securing Second Class Honours in Botany. As Assistant Demonstrator in Botany, it is whispered that he met his life mate and steadfast companion Pulsara - herself the earliest female Bio- sciences student. A Government Scholarship in 1946 took him to Clare College Cambridge, where in 1949 he was awarded the Ph.D for his researches on the Temperate Woodlands near Cambridge.

When our batch entered the University in 1950, we eagerly awaited the encounter with the freshly-minted Ph.D (Cantab). We were not disappointed. Neat, methodical and precise, the good Doctor was the note taker's (and examinee's) dream! Hugely knowledgeable and apparently blessed with a near photographic memory he was our Botanical Wikipedia till the very end. Field visits to the Mangroves near Negombo and flora of the surroundings of Meegoda/Homagama were treats for our small batch of four Specials! We packed into his personal Skoda (CN  3343) and trundled along, our ecological appetites whetted and thirst quenched with kurumbas and Orange Barley off our lecturer’s generosity!. On Bot Soc trips, Dr BAA was usually the guide with the automatic accompaniment of his good wife (Pulsie to us) as female chaperone for the girls. They would often join in singing Sinhala duets - seemingly deaf to the more bawdy versions being belted out in the back of the bus! They were great outings and object lessons on how to scrounge refreshments from "Society Leaders" on the way. We once did a trip to the fossil deposits of Tabbowa for a total cost of I think, less than Rs 10/= per head! So thorough was the guidance that nearly sixty years later, many of the names of mangrove flora, roadside and rubber estate weeds effortlessly spring to memory!.

In 1965, Dr Abeywickrama became Professor of Botany He served successively, as Dean, Faculty of Science (1966-1969). Vice-Chancellor, Colombo (1969-1972). When all the campuses were amalgamated under a single University of Ceylon, he had the honour of becoming its first Vice-Chancellor, remaining thus until 1974.

Outside the University as well, his contributions were outstanding. He was Chairman of the International Biological Programme Committee for Sri Lanka (1968-1973), UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Committee (1974-1983), Coconut Research Board (1977-1983), Coconut Cultivation Board (1977-1979), Member, Coconut Development Authority during the same period, Research Committee of the Sri Lanka Tea Board (1989), Agricultural Development Authority (1978-1979), Palmyrah Development Board (1978-1980) and the NSC Sri Lanka Flora Revision Advisory Committee (1990-1998).

In voluntary associations, he was President Natural History Society (1961), President Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (1968), President, National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (1980-1981) and President, Institute of Biology (1983-1984). He served also on the UNESCO Director-General’s Advisory Committee on Humid Tropics Research (1959-1964), Fauna and Flora Advisory Committee (1958-1981), Sri Lanka National Science Council (1968-1977) and on the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (1972-1973).

He was a renowned authority on Plant Taxonomy, Ecology and Environmental Science. He was thus a logical choice for participation as the official national delegate or as an invitee at numerous international conferences.

He published profusely (over 50 recognised publications) and my favourite was his epic "Checklist of Sri Lankan Bryophytes and Pteridophytes". Much of the botanical information was recorded in his monumental memory, which thankfully, served him to the end.

It would be idle to pretend that Prof. Abeywickrama did not have his detractors and adversaries. The writer himself, at the time BAA was Chairman and himself Director of the CRI, had several lively and fiery verbal exchanges! But never, ever were they allowed to leave a scar or to sully the most cordial and compassionate personal relations between themselves and their families. They remain rich to the end.

After 47 years of dedicated service to the University, Professor Abeywickrama retired in 1985, earning the richly deserved title of Emeritus Professor. The University of Colombo also conferred on him, the Degree of Doctor of Science, D.Sc (Honoris causa).

We have lost a scholar of great eminence but above all, a gentleman of simplicity, humanity and decency. All compounded things being impermanent, we can only wish this good man that his journey through Samsara be peaceful and brief.

Dr. U Pethiyagoda

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