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Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

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Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

Post by Backstage on Mon Mar 30, 2015 7:27 pm

Elder Statesman of Sri Lanka’s Earth Science Community turned 89 on March 24
March 28, 2015, 12:00 pm

by Ranjit Mulleriyawa


Dr. Chris Panabokke- Sri Lanka’s foremost soil scientist and legendry past Director of Agriculture celebrated his 89th Birthday on March 24 this year. The Department of Agriculture organized a special event to felicitate Dr. Panabokke on this occasion at the In-Service training Institute, Gannoruwa.

In a professional career spanning almost 60 years, beginning as a Research Probationer/Research Officer in the Department of Agriculture at Mahailluppallama in 1950, Dr. Panabokke rose to, and adorned the position of Director of Agriculture for four years (1979-1982). After his retirement in 1982, he served the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in the Hague, Netherlands, and the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI- now IWMI).

He has authored several books and published over 30 research papers in reputed International journals in addition to presenting 35 scientific papers at national and international workshops/conferences on: Soils of Sri Lanka and fertilizer use, groundwater conditions in Sri Lanka, small village tank systems, and agro-ecological environments of Sri Lanka. A detailed account of Dr. Panabokke’s work is contained in a special publication of the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka edited by R.S. Dharmakeerthi (publication No.11, 1982).

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to science, agriculture, the understanding of our soils and groundwater behavior, Dr. Panbokke was conferred the Presidential award: ‘Vidya Jyothi’ in 1986 and ‘Deshamanya’ in 1998 by the Government of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Panabokke is not only an outstanding scholar and scientist, but also an exceptional human being – a man of the highest integrity, honesty, sincerity, humility and a true patriot. He also has the exceptional ability to "see the big picture" and grasp its relevance to national development. He is well versed in the humanities- art, music, drama and literature; also a great conversationalist full of wit and many rib tickling anecdotes – truly a ‘man for all seasons’. How did he acquire these attributes? It could not have been mere chance or accident. What influences in his childhood and early education helped mould his personality? These, little known aspects of his life are what interested me most. I decided to find out for myself by interviewing the great man in his ‘den’- at his unpretentious home in Nawala, Rajagiriya.

Childhood and early education

Christopher Rajindra Panabokke was born on March 24, 1926 at the ancestral home- ‘Panabokke Waluwwa’ in Udapalatha, Wattappola (near Kadugannawa). His father was C.B. Panabokke, a landed proprietor, and his mother was May Jayewardene from Hikkaduwa. He was the third child and the first boy in a family of seven (four boys and three girls). His mother had been educated at Holy Family Convent, Colombo and his father, at Kingswood College Kandy. They were both devout Buddhists. His parents valued education and culture more than acquisition of wealth, and decided to send their young son first to Hillwood College, Kandy, and thereafter, to St.Anthony’s College, Katugastota. "Why not Trinity?" I asked him. "My parents believed that a Catholic school could instill discipline in a young boy. Besides, at that time, St. Anthony’s had a better reputation for academic work."

"Miss Peggy Keyt, a teacher at Hillwood, had a great formative influence on me. She kindled an interest in science and biology and nature study by taking her students for walks along Upper Lake Road, and making us observe tadpoles and follow their development into frogs. My inquiring mind was nurtured by her in the kindergarten".

When I was a student in standard four at St. Anthony’s College, another great teacher –Mr. James Edward Rogers, stimulated an interest in geography. He would hold a globe in his hand, and tell us that the earth was round and not flat. I asked him if that was really true, how is it that we are able to stand upright and still not fall over?" My classmates burst out laughing. The teacher admonished them for doing so, and said "that is a very good question, you are too young to understand it now, but I predict that you will be a good scientist when you grow up."

Young Christopher Panabokke transferred from St. Anthony’s to St. Benedict’s College, Colombo because he was interested in studying science. He entered the University in 1945, having offered Physics, Chemistry, Applied Maths and Pure Maths as subjects. Sir Ivor Jennings was Vice Chancellor at the time and the University had some excellent teachers such as Professor A.W. Mailvaganam in Physics, Eric Fonseka in Chemistry and C.J.Eliezer in mathematics. "Physics was my favorite subject, and the love of physics was enhanced by Professor Mailvaganam’s brilliant lectures….

The chalk and blackboard physics of Prof. Mailvaganam strongly influenced my scientific thinking… Prof. Mailvaganam really organized my scientific thinking… I did very well in Physics, but after the first term, I decided to specialize in chemistry because chemistry graduates had better job opportunities."

University education and seeking a mission in life

"The University authorities accommodated me at ‘Brodie hostel’ together with Arts students, Medical students etc, and interactions with students of these disciplines helped broaden my education and enhance my vision and world view… We also had two excellent deputy Wardens (P.Gerald Cooray, and Sam Wijesinha). Sam Wijesinha would often engage us in discussing world issues. This stimulated our thinking. I also participated in activities of the Drama Society, Classical Music Society and Travel Society…. We used to travel around the country during the long vacations. On one such trip, we went to Gal Oya. The dam was just being constructed, and this sight had a profound influence on me…. It sparked an interest in national development."

Panabokke graduated with a degree in Chemistry (Honours) in 1949. His first job was in the Government Analyst’s Department where he served for just six months. In October 1950, he applied for a position of Research Officer/Res. Probationer in the Department of Agriculture. "I was interviewed by Dr. Rhind (director of Agriculture) and Dr. A.W.R. Joachim. They asked me ‘where have you traveled in the country, and what made you travel?’ I told them that I was interested in seeing the hinterland, and learning about my people and our ancient history. ‘Would you like to go to Polonnaruwa, and engage in sugarcane research?’ they asked. "I would like it very much," I said. What makes you so enthusiastic about Polonnaruwa?" they shot back. "I can swim across the Mahaweli and engage in elephant hunting during my spare time," I replied. They burst out laughing, and said ‘You are just the man for us’. That was the end of my interview. I got the job, and so began my professional life in the Department of Agriculture."

Professional life

While at Polonnaruwa, I read R.L. Brohier’s ‘Ancient Irrigation Works of Ceylon’. It was fascinating reading, and I spent most of my leisure time visiting the sites described by Brohier. ‘Did you shoot any elephants?’ "No, that was just a joke. Besides I was so short, my nick name was ‘Kooni’ (tiny) that I could barely reach knee height of these massive pachyderms", chuckled Dr. Panabokke.

But the greatest influence on his professional life was still to come. That happened to be his meeting with the legendary Dr. Earnest Abeyratne, founder director of the Dry Zone Agricultural Research Station at Mahailluppallama. They were cast in the same mould, and imbued with a burning desire to serve the simple peasant farmers of the dry zone. They were both field oriented, practical men, having an open mind - always willing to learn and appreciate the ancient wisdom of ‘traditional farmers’ and their farming systems. Mahailluppallama was a major turning point in his life.

Dr. M.F. Chandraratne (Botanist and Senior Agricultural Research Officer at the time, and Director of Agriculture subsequently), also had a strong influence in contributing to clarity of thought, and precision of speech and writing of young research officer Panabokke.

Having spent two years at Mahailluppallama trying to understand soil-water- plant relationships in relation to the agro-climatic conditions, topography and water table behavior, Christopher Panabokke was offered a Colombo Plan Scholarship (in 1954) to study for his PhD in soil physics at the prestigious Waite Agricultural Research Institute affiliated to the University of Adelaide, in Australia. This was to be another defining moment, having a profound influence on his scientific work. He completed his PhD in soil physics in 1956, having been placed ‘Proxime accesesserunt" for the Cuiross Prize for scientific research. Dr. C.R. Panabokke returned to Sri Lanka and to Mahailluppallama, in October 1956, and continued his work from where he had left off. The rest is history, amply documented in a special publication of the soil science society of Sri Lanka (volume 11, 2011).

Dr. Panabokke rose to the highest position in the Department of Agriculture – Director of Agriculture in 1978. He retired from this position four years later on reaching the age of 55 "to make way for others." I asked him what he would liked to be remembered for most, " I built up a school of thinking on soils, agro-ecology and ground water with some fine scientists- like Kingsley de Alwis, Joshua and Somasiri", was his modest reply.

"How about your ‘better half? What influence did she have on your work?", I asked him. Ah! That is a long story….. I met Seemanthi Madugalle at Mahailluppallama for the first time. She was in a group of students from the School of Agriculture in Kundasale visiting the Mahailluppallama research station where I was located…. It was love at first sight (he chuckled)… we married in 1956. Yes, she has been a major stabilizing influence on my life… she managed the home front efficiently giving me all the time to engage in my work. Even now, she attends to all my creature comforts. We have three children – all daughters. Two of them are overseas and one in Sri Lanka. We also have grandchildren…. One of them made a perfect assessment of my personality: she said "Aththa is an explorer of places and ideas".

I asked Dr. Panabokke if he had any regrets. "None at all. In fact I consider myself very fortunate to have been in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. I have had a good life. I did not expect to live this long, you know…. Perhaps, I should have been a little more careful in managing my money. My government pension of 29,000 rupees a month is totally inadequate to cope with today’s cost of living."

Happy Birthday! Dr. Panabokke. May your life and work serve as a role model for young scientists for generations to come!

Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

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Re: Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

Post by කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා on Tue Mar 31, 2015 12:05 pm

Thanks Backstage. Very Happy
(Inspiring to read).
කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා
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Re: Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

Post by Backstage on Tue Mar 31, 2015 1:39 pm

කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා wrote:Thanks Backstage. Very Happy
(Inspiring to read).

Your welcome, these are the unsung heroes of our land, and there are quite a lot at various levels in society. We mostly here about Mervyns and Duminda's , these heroes don't sell news papers, but they are there for those who care to look. I was lucky in getting to know many such people during my childhood.
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Re: Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

Post by nihal123 on Tue Mar 31, 2015 1:48 pm

Thanks Back with+

by Ranjit Mulleriyawa Question

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Re: Thirsty for knowledge- even at 89

Post by කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා on Tue Mar 31, 2015 1:51 pm

Yes agree 100 %.

Backstage wrote:
කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා wrote:Thanks Backstage. Very Happy
(Inspiring to read).
Your welcome, these are the unsung heroes of our land, and there are quite a lot at various levels in society. We mostly hear about Mervyns and Duminda's , these heroes don't sell news papers, but they are there for those who care to look. I was lucky in getting to know many such people during my childhood.
කිත්සිරි ද සිල්වා
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