ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, Octomber 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20

He showed us the true meaning of university education

Osmund Wickrama Jayaratne

By Professor Dhammika Tantrigoda

Prof. Osmund Wickrama Jayaratne, one of the most versatile personalities in Sri Lanka in recent times, passed away peacefully a few weeks ago after a long and fruitful life which spanned almost 82 years. His demise is mourned by many of his colleagues and past students in academia, comrades in the political arena and friends and fellow artists in drama circles. I write this appreciation as one of his past students who studied Physics under his guidance at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in the early seventies.

Prof. Osmund Wickrama Jayaratne

I first met Professor Osmund Jayaratne at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya when I entered this hallowed institution as a freshman in September 1969. I vividly remember how eagerly we were waiting to listen to our first lecture at the university soon after completion of registration formalities. Sharp at ten o’clock a tall gentleman dressed in casual but smart attire appeared and welcomed us with a broad smile and introduced himself as Osmund Jayaratne. It was an introductory lecture in which he introduced Physics as the fascinating story of the relentless quest of mankind to understand nature. He took us along a guided tour of the historical development of Physics, starting from contributions of early Greek philosophers to those of architects of Modern Physics, through the celebrated work of giants of the classical period such as Kepler, Galileo and Newton. He referred to the Apollo 11 mission, which was completed successfully just a few months before, as a fine example of Physics in action. It was a refreshing two hours during which we learnt not only Physics but also history, philosophy and even English language and literature. It was a totally different learning experience for all of us -through which we realised what university education is all about. At the end of the lecture many of us came out of the lecture theatre with a dream: the dream of reading for a special degree in Physics.

Professor Osmund Jayaratne was a brilliant Physicist. This brilliance can be traced back to his school days at the Royal College where he won many prizes for his academic excellence including the prestigious Turnour Prize and came second in the island in both the Cambridge Senior Certificate Examination and the London Matriculation Examination. He entered the University of Ceylon in 1942 and was selected to follow the Special Degree in Physics. In addition, to academic activities he took a keen interest in drama and took part in no less than 15 Shakespeare plays directed by Professor E.F.C. Ludowyck, then Professor of English of the University of Ceylon.

Professor Jayaratne was a strong left wing politician who stepped into political activities while he was a student at the University. Once he had to sacrifice his position as an Assistant Lecturer in Physics at the University as a consequence of his political involvements. In 1959 he was again absorbed into the University of Ceylon and posted to its newly built Peradeniya Campus. Soon after recruitment he was offered an opportunity of reading for a Doctoral Degree in Atmospheric Electricity and Cloud Physics at the Imperial College of the University of London under the guidance of Prof. B.J. Mason who later became the Director General of Meteorology of Great Britain. His Ph.D. research resulted in many publications including one in the most prestigious “Proceedings of the Royal Society”.

After completing his postgraduate studies, Professor Jayaratne returned to Peradeniya in 1964 and continued his teaching and research commitments. He taught Physics in both English and Sinhala languages, with equal competence. To overcome the scarcity of Physics books in Sinhala, he translated into Sinhala, Allen and Moor’s “Practical Physics”, a text book popular among English medium Physics students at that time. In addition to his statutory duties as a university teacher he contributed immensely to upgrade the cultural and intellectual life of the university.

A weekly lecture series “Popular Science Gossip” organized by him was appreciated by the University community. A bi-weekly lecture series conducted by him at Peradeniya on “Humanities and Social Sciences” was popular not only among the University community but also among students and teachers of schools in Kandy and its suburbs. His lecture series on General Science to first year students reading for the Bachelor of Arts Degree gave them a rare opportunity to appreciate the logical approach of the scientific method and to have a glimpse of fascinating developments of modern science.

Professor Jayaratne’s involvements in university reforms and his subsequent career at the University of Colombo are well known. However, I wish to make a special mention of his contribution towards uplifting the education of the working class by inaugurating the workers’ education programme at the Universities of Peradeniya, Sri Jayewardenepura and Colombo, which later culminated as the “Institute of Workers Education” of the University of Colombo. Contributions made by Professor Jayaratne to the trade union movement of the University teachers also deserve special mention. In recognition of his long and exemplary career at the university and his service to mankind, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura conferred on him the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa in 1991.

I met Professor Jayaratne about two years ago at one of the annual get-togethers of the Peradeniya Alumni Association.

He and his wife were special invitees of the occasion and he was happy to meet his past students.

He was alert and agile in spite of the ravages of time on his body. He continued to chat with us with great enthusiasm, narrating anecdotes full of humour, which took us back to the good old days of Peradeniya. That was the last encounter many of us had with him.

Professor Osmund Jayaratne was a versatile person with talents and skills in many areas. He was much loved by his colleagues, students and close associates from many walks of life. He will be long remembered for his contribution to education, science, arts, and politics and also for his continuous attempt to serve mankind.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.