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
Mailvaganam studied at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of
Cambridge. His teachers at Cambridge were 9 Nobel Prize winners. They
(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
(5) Sir John Cockroft, well-known for splitting the atomic nucleus,
and was instrumental in the development of nuclear power (Nobel Prize
(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
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
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
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.