ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 4, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 23
Financial Times  

Legendary icon of industrial research and the CISIR

A week ago they laid to rest the mortal remains of a much loved scientific personality. He celebrated his 90th birthday in August with his daughter Darshani, and family, and his few remaining friends.

He was an icon of the then CISIR, and one of the original pre-independence-day scientists in industrial research.

The irrepressible Minister Philip Gunawardene had labelled him and those of his era the “Balfour Boys”. It was because the original Industrial Research Laboratory (IRL) was founded by the colonial civil servant D.H. Balfour, and the IRL was the nucleus of the post-independence organization, the CISIR.

CISIR, was founded in 1955 by the government of independent Sri Lanka on the advice of the World Bank expert Dr Francis Godwin, who became its first Director, which grew to be an apical research institute by the 1970’s.

When Dr A Sundaralingam became the institute’s first national Director, Laurentius succeeded him to the critical position of its Chief Research Officer (CRO).

He remained as CRO for more than a decade and a half before he finally was made Director of the Institute in 1975. Fittingly he was at the helm of the CISIR when the Institute formally celebrated its twenty first anniversary.

He had guided its destiny, and its research, under a variety of Directors with varying attitudes, policies and of course the range of idiosyncrasies that go with people.

When in the 1960’s new policies by Phillip Gunawardene as Minister in charge and Dr Lakshman G. Ponnamperuma as Director, brought in new staff and a number of young researchers, Laurentius was their guide philosopher and friend. He was a good manager, and affectionately referred to even by the younger non-scientific staff as “pappa”.

Laurentius was by his training a chemical engineer, and in addition, possessed a post-graduate diploma in management. He was, unfortunately, several times overlooked for the post of director, and although this deeply disappointed him, he took his bad luck with the philosophy that suits a man whose dedication to his institute was exemplary. His main research interest in the latter years was, in the technology for the processing of coconut milk, and he worked in this area with singular interest.

Otherwise too, he was genuinely interested in the work of all his research colleagues and that ranged from industrial microbiology, through chemical technology and natural products, to rubber technology, tea, electronics, and electrochemistry.
One could see him come in early in the morning, immaculately clad in starched white trousers, tie and long sleeved shirt, sporting his characteristic cigarette at the end of a long cigarette holder, and thermos flask in hand.

He had a brisk walk, and a cheery manner, and greeted everyone as he ventured along the laboratories and pilot-plant sections.

After his “rounds” of the institute, he would settle in his office at the front of the building, with his “hot cuppa tea”, poured from his thermos, and ready for any industrial clients who may have had appointments for the day.

Laurentius was a man with a wide range of interests, such as reading, music and the arts in addition to his industrial research.
We enjoyed conversations with him and even had heated arguments on a variety of issues, and always one salient feature was that he would graciously acknowledge his own faults and shortcomings.

Following his retirement from the post of Director in 1977, he lived a quiet life enjoying the company of his family and friends. He continued his interest in the CISIR and was one who along with the writer never understood the authorities for the change in the illustrious name of the CISIR.

He never comprehended, together with formidable colleagues here and abroad the sense behind the change if there was one, and the need for it. Although over recent years several attempts were made to bring it back the old celebrated name, these initiatives have alas got lost in limbo.

The year 2005 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the CISIR, and the newest state-of-the-art laboratory of the institute, now the Industrial Technology Institute or ITI, was housed in a building which was named, the “S.F. Laurentius Building”. Laurentius and his wife Florie, were present on the occasion, and hugely enjoyed the day.

He greatly appreciated the gesture of the present management, and particularly that of Ministers Tissa Vitarana and Sarath Amunugama, who stepped aside themselves, and invited Laurentius to open the building and laboratory by officially cutting the ceremonial ribbon. It was so nice that he felt that his services were singularly appreciated.

Laurentius was one who made a great contribution to industrial research not merely with his own work, but also by the benevolent managerial skills he used in facilitating the work of the rest.

He was quick to encourage and even demanded explanation for any trespasses by others with a stubborn ferocity.

Yet he was swift in apologizing for any errors of judgment that he himself had made. He was a rare soul and his just reward was not in riches but in the endearment of those who worked with him He is one who worked for his fellow-beings and has earned a heavenly repose.

R.O.B. Wijesekera
Former CISIR chairman


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