Malik Peiris, the first Sri Lankan Fellow of the
Following in the footsteps of giants
SUCCESS STORY : On May 18, 2006 the Royal Society of the United
Kindom elected 44 new Fellows and six foreign members. Lord Rees, the
president of the Royal Society, said that the new Fellows, '.......
followed in the footsteps of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen
Hawking, David Attenborough and Tim Bremers-Lee the inventor of the
world wide web'.
He further said, that these scientists form an outstanding group of
over 1400 Fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society, including
more than 60 Nobel Laureates. Their election to the Fellowship, by their
own peers, is recognition of their impressive achievements in, and
contribution to, science.
Prof. Malik Peiris
Royal Society Fellows are elected from Commonwealth countries and are
distinguished by their scientific excellence. The scientists are from a
wide range of fields including neurosciences, tropical medicine, and
astrophysics and quantum optics.
Joseph Sriyal Malik Peiris, by his election to this prestigious
Society created an indelible mark in the history of our motherland.
Professor Peiris, known as Malik Peiris, in the world of science, is
currently the Professor and Chair of Microbiology of the University of
He is also the chief of Microbiology at the Queen Mary Hospital, Hong
Kong. His current research is mainly on the ecology, epidemiology,
clinical disease burden, evolution and pathogenesis of animal and human
His research, carried out as a team with several government
departments and colleagues, has been responsible for the protection of
Hong Kong against the deadly avian flue (H5N1) that is spreading across
His crowning glory was in March 2003 when he played a major role in
determining the agent responsible for SARS, a hitherto unknown corona
When SARS cases started appearing among humans in the early 2003,
scientists around the world jumped into action by collaborating and
pooling each others' experiences, particularly making use of the
experience gained in AIDS research, in order to contain the disease.
Working and coordinating from the outbreak epicenter in Hong Kong,
Professor Peiris lost no time in isolating the dreaded corona virus.
Following the discovery of the cause of SARS, Professor Peiris was
invited by prestigious scientific bodies around the world to talk about
the discovery as well as on the prevention of diseases crossing over to
humans from animals.
In 2003 he delivered invited plenary lectures at the WHO Global
Conference on SARS and at the International Conference on Antimicrobial
agents and Chemotherapy in Chicago. In 2004 Professor Peiris delivered
the prestigious Gardner lecture of the European Society of Clinical
In January 2004, 'The independent' of UK, quoting Malik Peiris at a
seminar of the Royal Society said that there is a lurking danger of at
least thirty new diseases appearing during the next three decades as a
result of environmental disruption, global warming and behavioral
He reemphasised the fact that most of the new infections in the past
thirty years were due to increasing contact of humans with animals. The
main thrust of his presentation was the urgency of monitoring viruses
that jumped from animals to humans.
Professor Peiris was named the 'Hottest Researcher' by the March/
April 2005 edition of the 'Science Watch', published by Thomson
Scientific, for nine highly cited papers on SARS.
Professor Peiris hails from Kandy. His secondary education was at St.
Anthony's College, Katugastota. He entered the Faculty of Medicine,
University of Peradeniya, in 1967 and graduated in 1972.
Following a brief stint in the department of health services he
joined the academic staff of the Peradeniya Medical School as a lecturer
in Microbiology. He proceeded to the UK for his higher studies and in
1981 obtained his PhD from Oxford.
In 1982 he was conferred the membership of the Royal College of
On returning to Peradeniya he pioneered the setting up of the first
virology laboratory at the medical faculty. Professor Peiris took up
extensive laboratory and field research, in addition to his teaching
He worked tirelessly on dengue and Japanese encephalities during the
outbreaks in Anuradhapura district in 1984/ 1985 and in 1987. He
extended his research into malaria, particularly in the search for
possible malaria vaccines.
In 1988 he took up the position of Consultant Virologist at the Royal
Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His work at Bewcastle was
mainly on herpes and cytomegalovirus.
Hong Kong beckoned him in 1995. While at the department of
Microbiology, University of Hong Kong, he was in the midst of an
epidemic of avian influenza that swept across the country in 1997.
The team ably led by Professor Peiris isolated the new strain of
influenza virus now designated as H5N1. He dedicated his efforts to
unravel the mysteries of the newly emerging infections, particularly the
ones pass over from animals to humans and in 2003, when SARS appeared,
he was well prepared.
It did not come as a surprise to many in the medical profession when
we heard that Malik Peiris was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. If
there were any doubts, I am sure; it would be to ask why so late? The
election to this august body highlights another fact and that is the
respect, confidence and acceptance of Malik Peiris as a distinguished
researcher by his peers.
The Royal Society to which Malik Peiris was elected as a Fellow, in
May this year is the independent scientific academy of the UK dedicated
to promoting excellence in science. At the beginning it was an
'invisible college, formed by a few natural philosophers who met
informally to discuss the work of Francis Bacon in the mid 1640s.
The actual foundation date is given as November 28, 1660. Here in the
island of Ceylon at that time, the maritime areas were under the Dutch
while Rajasinghe 11 was on the Kandyan throne.
The founding of the society was the effort of twelve scientists who
met after listening in to a lecture by Christopher Wren who was the
Gresham Professor of Astronomy and the person who designed the St. Pauls
cathedral after the original building was gutted down by the great fire
of London in 1666.
The group included, among others, Wren himself, Robert Boyle, John
Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray and William, Viscount Brouncker. The objective
was to promote 'Physico-mathematical Experimental Learning'.
The meetings were scheduled weekly and the first curator of
experiments was Robert Hooke. Hooke is remembered as a close friend of
Robert Knox, English captive of Rajasinghe 11 and as the person who
wrote the lengthy preface to Knox's book on Ceylon. The Society received
a royal charter from Charles 11.
The Society published its first issue of Philosophical Transactions
edited by Henry Oldenburg in 1665. The journal is the oldest scientific
journal in the world that continues be published to date.
When one reads the list of Fellows from 1660 to date, there is no
doubt that Malik Peiris is in great company and for sure he had done our
In May 2003, the then President of Sri Lanka congratulated Professor
Peiris noting especially his decision and that of the University of Hong
Kong, not to defend proprietary rights for the discovery of the SARS
In December 2003 the University of Peradeniya, Maliks Alma mater,
conferred him the degree of DSc Honoris causa, the highest award the
university can bestow.
It was only last week that the current President of Sri Lanka,
Mahinda Rajapaksa congratulated Malik Pieris who brought honour to
The writer is the Professor at Faculty of Medicine, University of