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Prof. A. W. Mailvaganam remembered

THE 100th birth anniversary of the late Professor A. W. Mailvaganam, doyen of the University of Ceylon physics academics fell on November 13.

Professor Mailvaganam was born in Suthumalai, Manipay in Jaffna. His father was a government apothecary. He was educated at the prestigious Methodist Missionary School, the Jaffna Central College.

Subsequently he obtained a scholarship to St. Benedict's College, Kotahena and on another scholarship he entered Royal College, Colombo.

Prof. Mailvaganam was the recipient of a series of academic distinctions. He entered the Ceylon University College on a Governor's scholarship and graduated from the Ceylon University College, later known as University of Ceylon and now the University of Colombo, with a first class honours B.Sc degree awarded by the University of London in 1923 at the age of 19, and was the youngest ever to do so.

Thereafter, he was awarded the Ceylon Government scholarship and entered Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge in 1924. Incidentally, Emmanuel College is famous, as John Harvard who later founded the prestigious Harvard University in the USA, was also educated there. On a recent visit to the Cambridge University I saw his name on a board there.

Mailvaganam studied at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. His teachers at Cambridge were 9 Nobel Prize winners. They were:

(1) Lord Ernest Rutherford, 'father' of nuclear physics, pioneered the discovery of the alpha, beta and gamma rays. (Nobel Prize 1908).

(2) Sir J. J. Thomson who discovered the electron that subsequently revolutionised the world with electronics (Nobel Prize 1906).

(3) F. W. Aston, who discovered the whole number rule on isotopes (Nobel Prize 1921).

(4) James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron in 1932 (Nobel Prize 1935).

(5) Sir John Cockroft, well-known for splitting the atomic nucleus, and was instrumental in the development of nuclear power (Nobel Prize 1951).

(6) Lord Patrick M. S. Blackett - for the development of the Wilson cloud chamber method, and discoveries therewith in the fields of nuclear physics and cosmic radiation". (Nobel Prize 1948).

(7) Paul Dirac "for the discovery of new and productive forms of atomic theory." (Nobel Prize 1933).

(8) Niels Henrik David Bohr who was a guiding spirit and major contributor to the development of quantum mechanics and atomic physics (Nobel Prize 1922), and

(9) Cecil Frank Powell "for his development of the photographic method of studying nuclear processes and his discoveries regarding mesons made with this method. (Nobel Prize 1950)

Professor Mailvaganam obtained the Natural Science Tripos with first class honours (M.A) from the University of Cambridge in 1928. He was President of the Cambridge Ceylon Society.

Subsequently, the University of Cambridge conferred on him the Ph.D. The Universities of Colombo and Jaffna awarded him the doctorates in Science (D.Sc.).

A contemporary of Robert Oppenheimer, often referred to as the 'father of the atomic bomb' who also studied under Lord Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory and subsequently served the University of California and the California Institute of Technology, Mailvaganam had also the privilege of attending a lecture in Germany by Albert Einstein, the world's greatest physicist.

On his return to Ceylon, he was appointed Professor of Physics of the University of Ceylon and subsequently, Dean of the Faculty of Science, University of Ceylon.

Professor Mailvaganam acted as Vice Chancellor on many occasions when Sir Nicholas Attygalle was Vice Chancellor. Strangely, Mailvaganam was not appointed Vice Chancellor, despite being closely associated with the University of Ceylon for over 45 years.

In 1953, he was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen. Professor Mailvaganam was President of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science (now SLAAS).

He was a member of the University Grants Commission (at which time his student Professor Stanley Kalpage was chairman) and also a member of the Board of Governors of the Institute of Fundamental Studies. President J. R. Jayewardene honoured him with the 'Vidya Jyothi' award in 1985.

Professor Mailvaganam had the distinction of lecturing without the aid of textbooks. His students in the University of Ceylon not only excelled in science and held professorships in the Universities of Sri Lanka and overseas, but also entered the industrial sphere.

Also some became Chartered Accountants, as during the earlier days, many obtained a science degree pursuing a career in accountancy and holding leading management positions in the mercantile sector of Sri Lanka.

After his retirement, Prof. Mailvaganam successfully helped students to prepare for the Advanced Level examination of the University of London, and these students were able to get admission to the Universities of London, Cambridge, Standford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and are all in leading positions today.

He died on March 25, 1987 at the age of 81.

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