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Eric L. Fonseka memorial oration:

‘A tale of serendipity and the mystery and chemistry of colour’

The Eric L. Fonseka Memorial Oration on “A tale of Serendipity and the Mystery and Chemistry of Colour” will be delivered by Dr R.O.B. Wijesekera, a former student of Prof. Fonseka on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 at 5.00 p.m. at Admantane House, No. 341/22, Kotte Road, Welikada, Rajagiriya. The oration is organised by the Institute of Chemistry (Ceylon) and sponsored by Link Natural Products (Pvt) Ltd.

ORATION: Eric L. Fonseka was the Professor of Chemistry at the University of Ceylon, Colombo, during the period 1951-1973, when the country had only one single University and also one Professor of Chemistry.

It was during his regime that the proposal to shift the Faculty of Science to Peradeniya and to thereby create a second Department of Chemistry was finalised. He presided over the transfer of the department to Peradeniya while retaining his leadership role in the Colombo section.

A dynamic and colourful personality, Prof. Fonseka was a great communicator and as a teacher of the subject rendered a unique service to the fraternity of chemistry. He by his very manner enticed students to study chemistry as a subject.

His initiation of a generation of men into chemistry was made with great aplomb and dedication, and the success of our pioneering chemists in post-independence careers was indeed a just tribute to him.

He researched under the incomparable ‘Great’ of organic chemistry the Nobel laureate Sir Robert Robinson O.M. FRS when the latter was Professor of Chemistry at the University of London and subsequently spent sabbatical terms with him at the Dyson Perrins laboratory at Oxford University. His subjects of interest were the colouring matters of plants, anthocyanins and betalains.

After retirement from the University, Prof. Fonseka served a term as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the then CISIR, during the time when one of his students Dr L.G.Ponnamperuma was Director. He also served as the Chairman of the State Sugar Corporation and passed away in the 1970s after a prolonged spell of ill health.

The oration will describe the unique case of serendipity, (accidental discovery), where a young chemist aged 18 years in 1856, produced the very first synthetic dye namely Mauve.

The chemist W.H. Perkin, later to become Sir William Perkin, became one of the most distinguished chemists of all time, and the one who is credited - along with Thomas Alva Edison - to have been the “Inventors of tomorrow”.

Perkin’s discovery led to the vast modern synthetic chemical industry, which encompasses the Fragrance, the Pharmaceutical, the Polymer, and the Dyeing Industries and are the basis of modern life, together with the communications industry, similarly pioneered by Edison in 1959.

The Eric L. Fonseka Memorial oration will be very ably delivered by Vidyajyothi Dr. R. O. B. Wijesekera, a scientist of international acclaim whose expertise in science and technology and industry has been eagerly sought by organisations all over the globe.

He has won a number of awards and accolades for his work amongst which have been the Guinness medal for scientific achievement in international recognition of his high standing in the research community and a Honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Sheffield, UK in 1997.

Presently he serves as a Consultant to Link Natural Products (Pvt) Ltd. and was previously the Chairman of CISIR and also the first Chairman of NASTEC.

Dr. Wijesekera, will provide a snapshot review of the chemistry, the mystery and, the utility of some of the chemical entities that are responsible for natural colour, including those that were coveted dye stuffs in the pre-Perkin era. Many of these are still valued today some not matched by even the bewildering array of synthetics.

“A tale of serendipity and the mystery and chemistry of colour” will undoubtedly be of immense interest not only to chemists but to all who depend on the inspiring presence of colour in business, science and industry.

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