Prof. B. A. Abeywickrama


Looking back on the events which took place in 2011, the sad demise of Professor B. A. Abeywickrama on the 3rd of May occupies a prominent place. This was an unusual person who did not seek the limelight, but was placed in responsible positions by authorities who needed to get certain jobs done. Professor Abeywickrama’s strengths included technical expertise of a high order, integrity, love for the country and the tact and common sense necessary when handling certain administrative ‘hotspots’ (which in universities and in scientific circles can become quite ‘hot’). It is fortunate for this country that he retained his mental faculties up to his demise at the age of 91, thus enabling this retiring individual to serve as a respected role model to those others, who were willing to recognise him for what he was.

Bartholomeusz Aristides Abeywickrama (‘Bernie’ to his friends since childhood) was born on the 17th February 1920. His father was an Inspector of Schools who had served in many stations including Galle and Colombo and his mother was a ‘homemaker’. BAA was educated initially at St. Aloysius, Galle and later at Royal College, Colombo.

A scholarly achievement of his schooldays was a precursor to his later life. The school he was attending offered a prize in ‘Christian knowledge’. Though BAA was and remained a devout Buddhist all through his life, he decided this was interesting, took up the challenge of studying this religion and won the prize.

He distinguished himself academically at Royal College before entering University College, Colombo in 1937. His studies there culminated in an external degree (B.Sc.) of the University of London in 1941. He was appointed an Assistant Demonstrator in Botany in 1942 at the University College, Colombo. (At this time he met and later married Pulsara, the first female bioscience student at University College. She predeceased him in 1993.)

In 1946, he went up to Clare College, Cambridge on a Government Science Scholarship for research on temperate woodlands. He very much enjoyed this period, which included going on his bicycle to his locations of research. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1946 for his thesis ‘A Study of the Variations in the Field Layer Vegetations of Two Cambridgeshire Woods’ and returned to the University of Ceylon to take up an appointment as Lecturer. He was appointed Professor of Botany in 1965.

Though he did not seek appointments, his services were much sought after. The calls on his time and ability were numerous. Details of these have been recounted in the ‘Appreciation’ by Dr. U. Pethiyagoda published on the 26th May 2011 and in that of the University of Colombo in 1985 on the occasions of his being appointed Professor Emeritus and being conferred the degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa). (A degree of Doctor of Science was also conferred on him by the Open University.) These informative accounts will not be repeated here for reasons of space except to note that he had the signal honour of being appointed first Vice-Chancellor of the (amalgamated) University of Sri Lanka. While he enjoyed all he set his mind to, my impression from discussions with him was that he took particular satisfaction in his assignment as member of the UNESCO Advisory Committee to the Director- General on Humid Tropics Research (1959-1964). His contribution to the revision of Trimen’s ‘Flora of Ceylon’ is another of the scientific works for which he will be remembered, both locally and internationally.

It may not be out of place to note three incidents from his life I have not seen elsewhere recorded. The first was connected with a conference in South America which he was deputised to attend due to the reluctance for some reason of the person initially assigned. Professor Abeywickrama was not briefed on the requirement to be inoculated against yellow fever. In consequence, on the return trip he was taken off his plane at Bombay airport and required to be admitted into a quarantine camp (in the company of patients suffering from small pox, cholera etc.). Much negotiation was needed before he was allowed to resume his journey having given an undertaking to report at regular intervals to the Quarantine Department in Colombo.

A noteworthy incident occurred during his term on the first Board of the Central Environmental Authority (on which this writer also served). At a Board Meeting it was reported to us that the waters of the Beira Lake had turned green and that then Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, (under whom the CEA functioned) had been advised that an industrial establishment had been dumping green paint into the lake. Professor Abeywickrama looked thoughtful on hearing this, asked for a sample to examine under a microscope and established that it was a case of ‘eutrophication’ by minute algae and other microorganisms due to pollution of the lake. The Police, for one, were extremely grateful for this information since they were being pressed from above to apprehend those who were guilty of dumping green paint into the lake.

Another incident during his service on the Board of the CEA was his battle against a poorly conducted ‘Forestry Master Plan’. The country owes a considerable debt of gratitude to Professor Abeywickrama for his selfless and protracted exertions on this matter against much opposition. If that Master Plan had gone through in its original form, it would have been disastrous to the forests of this country.

There is much more that could be said about the scientific and other contributions to this country by this exceptional person. However, space does not permit and this account must be closed here.

Professor Abeywickrama is survived by his children Kamal, Gayathri and Kumudini and his grandchildren Prashan, Nuwan, Jeevaki, Devini, Lilani, and Aristides.

Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

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