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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Random Thoughts 
on Two Eminent Eelam Scientists

29 November 2000


The 'One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century' is one of my favorite view spots in the Tamil Nation website. Regularly I click on to this spot to study the new nominations. 

Two years ago, I provided a list of 70 names in various categories as my nominees. 

As of 27 November 2000, the nominee listing has increased to a total of 222 names. Among these, the section on 'Science and Education' carries 10 distinguished names. The names of Tamil scientists already nominated by me and others are, (in alphabetical order) S.Chandrasekhar, C.J.Eliezer, Naa Govindasamy, Abdul Kalam, A.Lakshmana Swami Mudaliyar, C.V.Raman, S.Ramanujan, S.Shanmugaratnam, M.S.Swaminathan and M.S.Uthayamoorthy.

Among these, only one name [that of C.J.Eliezer] belong to an Eelam scientist, though Singapore medical scientist S.Shanmugaratnam [known in scientific literature as S.S.Ratnam] was a Chulipuram-born Tamil, who emigrated to Singapore. I also located another nomination for an Eelam defence scientist, Appaiah, in the 'Struggle of Tamil Eelam' section. Apart from these, why a paucity for the names of Eelam Tamil scientists?

One may tend to infer that either there have been no scientists of top caliber among Eelam Tamils in the 20th century, or the enthusiasts of Eelam science culture are too modest or ignorant or suffering from procrastination, to nominate the star-scientists of Eelam. As a scientist by profession, I can attest that the first answer is wrong. 

At the same time, I can also propose that pathetically (to the best of my knowledge), there has been no qualified, professional science and medical historian in Ceylon among the academic ranks (with the exception of Dr. C.G.Uragoda) who has spent time and energy to carry the research on the history of 20th century science in Ceylon. This void needs to be filled.

In this respect, the efforts of recently deceased Eelam's nonegenarian irrigation engineer Sanmugam Arumugam deserves merit. His reference compilation, 'A Dictionary of Biography of Ceylon Tamils' [London, 1997, 253 pages], profiling over 775 Ceylon Tamils "who have contributed some good to the community" is a treasure-trove for information-seekers like me.

Two eminent Eelam scientists whom I wish to nominate to the list of 'One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century' are,

1. S.V.O.Somanader (1897-1978), dean of Ceylon's amateur naturalists and a noted ornithologist.

2. Chellapah Amirthalingam (1903-1982), marine biologist of international renown.

I was able to cull brief bio-sketches about these two Eelam scientists from Arumugam's source book. These are as follows:

S.V.O.Somanader

Samuel Victor Ousmond Somanader, born in Feb.19, 1897 in Batticaloa. He began his professional career as a school teacher at the Batticaloa Central (Methodist) College, and became its principal in 1942. He retired in 1954. He was a noted naturalist, photographer, enthusiast and student of marine life. He was made a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, in recognition of his scientific study of birds and animal life in Ceylon.

Chellapah Amirthalingam

Born on April 29, 1903, was the youngest son of Chellapah and Meenachi of Urumpirai, and a [younger] brother of Suntheralingam, M.P.

After a brilliant school career, he obtained the B.Sc. degree with honours and proceeded to Cambridge where he got his doctorate in zoology. He was Director of Fisheries in the Andaman Islands for a short time. Returning to Ceylon, he held the post of Assistant Marine Biologist in 1938, and Director of Fisheries in 1941. He was also lecturer at the Ceylon University College for some time. Later he proceeded overseas and held the post of professor at the University of Sudan for a long time, before retirement. He passed away on Jan. 21, 1982.

Now, to my annotations on these two eminent Eelam scientists.

Somanader wrote on diverse topics in natural sciences, ranging from Veddah anthropology to zoology. The authoritative 5 volume reference work of H.A.I.Goonetileke, entitled, 'A Bibliography of Ceylon' (covering literature up to 1978) lists a total of 77 articles solely authored by Somanader, between the years 1937 and 1974, to journals and magazines such as Ceylon Causerie, Ceylon Fortnightly Review, Ceylon Today, Chambers Journal and Loris. Two notable examples of Somanader's contributions on the exotic 'singing fish' of Batticaloa are as follows:

The 'singing fish' of Batticaloa. Ceylon Today, Feb. 1964; 13(2): 24-28.
Batticaloa's singing fish. Loris, Dec. 1967; 11(2): 108-110.

I searched for some information on marine biologist Amirthalingam in the internet and located two funny items. One was a news story published in the Ceylon Daily News (June 7, 1999) authored by Paneetha Ameresekere, which reported the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations at Rahula College, Matara, where President Chandrika Kumaratunga had delivered a speech. Strangely, she has cited the name of scientist Amirthalingam, probably without knowing anything about his reputation. To quote,

"She [President] said that in the 75 years of Rahula College's existence this Buddhist school's second principal was a Tamil, Hindu called Dr. C.Amirthalingam. This shows that at that time the people did not differentiate a person according to his race or religion."

If we analyze Chandrika's remarks, the corollary reveals something which is obvious to all Tamils now. "At that time the people did not differentiate a person according to his race or religion". But now, people indeed are differentiated according to his race or religion in Sri Lanka! 

The second point which Chandrika didn't bother to elaborate or acknowledge was the fact that during the colonial era, scientists of the caliber of Amirthalingam also contributed a lot to the science education of Sinhalese children in the southern Sri Lanka without rancor or rabid parochialism. 

It is also well known that the spiritual father of Eelam campaign, Chellapah Suntharalingam (the elder brother of Amirthalingam) served as a vice principal of Buddhistic Ananda College, Colombo, during its incipient period.

The second item, which I located in one of the internet postings was funny indeed. In an entry related to a first collection of a bony fish named, Notobranchius virgatus, in Sudan in 1965, Dr. Amirthalingam (who was then affiliated to the University of Khartoum) is identified as "the late Pakistani C.Amirthalingam". It will be a miracle to find a Pakistani scientist having such an Eelam Tamil-Hindu name 'Amirthalingam'. But this is how, information is transmitted in the internet these days, replete with errors and omissions.

This should sound as a wake-up call for the younger generation of Eelam Tamils living in the diaspora, that they have a responsibility in their shoulders to study and correct errors of omission and commission which glut the ether medium now.

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