Cyril Ponnamperuma (16 October 1923-20 December 1994) was
a scientist in the fields of chemical evolution and the origin of
Cyril Ponnamperuma was born in Galle, Sri Lanka on 16 October 1923.
After completing his early education with flying colours at St.
Aloysius' College, Galle and subsequently at St. Joseph's College,
Colombo, Ponnamperuma proceeded to India and in 1948 obtained a
Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of
Later he moved to the United Kingdom and enrolled at Birkbeck,
University of London, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science
degree in chemistry in 1959. At the same time he had the
opportunity to work with Professor J. D. Bernal, a pioneering
scientist engaged in research on the origin of life. Afterwards he
proceeded to the United States, where in 1962 he received a
doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley
under the direction of the Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin.
In 1962, he was honoured with a National Academy of Science
resident associateship with NASA at Ames Research Center. In 1963
he joined NASA's Exobiology Division and take over the helm of the
Chemical Evolution Division. He was selected as the principal
investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to earth by Project
Thereafter, he was closely involved with NASA in the Viking and
Voyager programmes and was offered membership in both the Space
Science Advisory Council and Life Sciences Advisory Council of
According to Arthur C. Clarke, "No other scientist of Sri Lankan
origin was internationally known and respected as he was". He
produced over 400 scientific publications and held a number of
prestigious academic posts during his rather short lifespan.
His studies focused mainly towards the origin of life, but only
after he was selected for the analysis of the moon dust in the
'Apollo Programme' his name and photo appeared on the cover-pages
of world class newspapers and magazines such as Time and
The "Third World Academy of Sciences" (TWAS) based in Trieste,
Italy elected him as its vice president in 1989 and appointed him
Chairman of the International Network of Science Centres in
selected developing Countries. He contributed immensely to the
Third World Foundation of North America as its Chairman.
He was the first director of the "Arthur C. Clarke Centre for
Modern Technologies" in Sri Lanka, and in 1984 was appointed
science advisor to the President of Sri Lanka by the late President
J. R. Jayewardene. He was so fortunate, indeed, as to be associated
with many universities in the USA and other countries. He served as
a distinguished Lecturer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the
Chinese Academy of Sciences for a considerable period.
The Atomic Energy Commission of India offered him an assignment
as a visiting Professor in 1967. UNESCO appointed him for a period
covering 1970-1971 as its Director of the Programme for the
development of basic research in Sri Lanka. After that, in his
endeavour to widen the horizon of knowledge of the fellow human
beings the distinguished Academic apex he selected was University
of Maryland in USA. Since 1971 he provided his service to that
University as a Professor of Chemistry as well as the Director of
the laboratory of chemical evolution.
His contribution to the development of International Programmes
of that University was acknowledged in deserved manner in January
1991, the first distinguished International Service Award was
presented to him by that university. Among the many awards that
Professor Ponnamperuma received one can mention the "Alexander
Oparin Gold Medal" for the 'Best sustained Programme' on the origin
of life awarded by the International Society for the study of the
origin of life in 1980. In recognition of his service to Sri Lanka,
he was conferred, "The Honour of Vidya Jyothy" at the 1990 National
Day investiture ceremony by President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
The presence of this great son of Sri Lanka, was so conspicuous
all over the world as to be nominated to the prestigious Pontical
Academy of Sciences, a body represented by world-renowned
scientists who excelled in the spheres of mathematical and
The Academy of Creative Endeavors, Moscow, awarded him the
Harold Urey Prize and the Academy Medal for his outstanding
contribution to the study of the origin of life.
His participation in the Sri Lankan scientific arena began in
1984, when he became the science adviser to the late Sri Lanka
President J. R. Jayewardena. Within a matter of months he was
appointed Director of the Institute of Fundamental Studies. His
country was fortunate to have a son so highly recognized in the
world and so dedicated to many public causes. His organisational
abilities and communication skills have been widely
He died soon after suffering a heart attack at the Laboratory of
Chemical Evolution, University of Maryland USA.
The remains of Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma were flown to
Colombo on January 9, 1995.