Distinguished physicist was a great teacher and complete gentleman

Professor George Alexander Dissanaike

Professor George Alexander Dissanaike (“GAD”), a great teacher and complete gentleman, passed away on July 4, 2008, in Kandy, at the age of 81. He was Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Peradeniya. He served as Senior Professor and Head of the Department of Physics at Peradeniya for many years, until his retirement in the early 1990s.

His exemplary character is permanently embedded in my memory. I was unable to attend his funeral because I was visiting South Korea at the time and attending the official opening of the first solar village in Sri Lanka. However, I did visit his family in Kandy to offer my condolences. There I was fortunate to meet both Mrs. Dissanaike and his only son, Dr. Gishan Dissanaike, who is on the academic staff of the University of Cambridge.

This article is an appreciation of GAD’s 63-year association with the university system of Sri Lanka, and his huge contribution to society.

GAD was born in Colombo on June 23, 1927. His ancestral family hailed from Sabaragamuwa but had settled in the Southern province. GAD was named after his paternal great grandfather, Mudaliyar Don George Alexander Seneviratne Dissanaike.

GAD was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom had careers in science. The eldest brother, the late Ben Dissanaike, retired as head of the Government Analyst’s Department. The second brother, Dr. Stanley Dissanaike, was a former Professor of Parasitology and Dean of the Colombo Medical Faculty.

GAD’s primary and secondary education was at Richmond College, Galle, and St. Peter’s College, Colombo. He entered the University of Ceylon, Colombo in 1945. After graduating with a BSc special degree in Physics in 1949, he was awarded the Government University Science Scholarship for postgraduate studies overseas. He went to Cambridge University in 1950 and obtained his PhD in 1953. He was a research student in experimental nuclear physics at the Cavendish Laboratory and a member of Downing College, Cambridge.

GAD joined the staff of the University of Ceylon (Colombo) in 1949, and was transferred to the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) in 1962. His research and publications covered Nuclear Physics and Energy, the Scattering of Light, Sunsets and Air Pollution, Science Education, and Physics in Biological and Medical Research. He collaborated with his older brother, Prof. Stanley Dissanaike, in preparing a series of academic papers.

GAD represented Sri Lanka at numerous international conferences and forums, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, UNESCO, International Centre for Theoretical Physics and ASPEN. He was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and the National Academy of Sciences, in Sri Lanka. He was also a past President of the Institute of Physics, Sri Lanka.

GAD has held visiting professorships and faculty appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of South Carolina in the US, and Cambridge University and the University of Surrey in the UK. From 1980 to 1982, he was a member of the committee of inquiry on the Use of Atomic Energy for Power Generation in Sri Lanka.
I met GAD for the first time 40 years ago, when I did my Advanced Level physics practical examination in 1968. I was fortunate to have his excellent guidance when I entered the Faculty of Science at the University of Peradeniya, in 1969. I was able to complete two BSc degrees, join the academic staff, and progress as a demonstrator, an assistant lecturer and a lecturer in physics in the same department while he was a key senior staff member. During my 15 years with the Department of Physics, I was inspired by his professional behaviour and gentle nature. He was a role model for many physicists of my generation.

After I moved to the UK in 1984, we would continue to meet at seminars, conferences and graduation dinners for new physics graduates.

GAD’s gentle nature and professional behaviour helped to create a pleasant working environment in the physics department. GAD silently served the country over a period of six decades, producing fine physicists who would serve mankind around the world. His wise guidance, smile and relaxed management style will be missed by all who knew him.

May he attain eternal peace.

Professor I. M. Dharmadasa, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

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