Professor P. C. B. Fernando

When I sat for HSC and UE examination in 1963, which was the equivalent of the present GCE A/L examination, with laboratory practical examinations, I saw a very handsome pipe smoking young lecturer in the laboratories of the University of Colombo. This young man came to me with a file and questioned me about my experiment, that was on light. My second experiment was on the sonometer, when I was doing the experiment with the use of a tuning fork, this young person once again appeared in front of me and told me to demonstrate how I tuned the sonometer. When I answered his question, he went near another student, said something, and disappeared into his room. In the year 1966, when I was a second year bio-science student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, I met the same person in the basement car park laboratories of Sumangala building of Reverend Soratha, of course with a briefcase in the left hand and a beautiful pipe in the right hand. Within minutes, I have realized that he was the same person that examined my physics practical examination in 1963 at the University of Colombo. This person was none other than late Professor P. C. B. Fernando.

Emeritus Professor P. C. B. Fernando died suddenly on February 5, on that day too, he was to come to the laboratories of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura to train young physics lecturers, who had come after obtaining their PhDs from foreign universities. Even after retirement at the mature age of 65 Professor Fernando went on coming to the university, without any perks, salaries or any other benefits, purely to do research with young but trained lecturers in Physics. He was fondly referred to as PCB by his colleagues and retired in 1995 after serving the universities of Sri Lanka well over 41 years. Out of which 30 years was spent as the Professor of Physics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, where he held positions such as the Head of the Department, Dean Science, and the President of the Campus at different times. He was also the Chairman of then CISIR, when the Minister of Scientific Affairs was late Mr. Cyril Matthew. At that time he assessed the output of scientific work by his researchers by giving a monetary values to their findings or development work done. Thus, he was able to negotiate successfully "high" salaries for his scientists. He did the same tactics in negotiating salaries for the university academics, where he convinced the Govt. that universities are nothing other than factories manufacturing value added products to the market. His argument was that a raw student who goes through the university, after passing A/L exam, is a finish product that could be marketed at a higher price than a school lever. Thus he showed that university dons earn billions of rupees to the Govt., if not for them such manpower had to be imported from foreign countries at very high cost to the Govt. These examples demonstrated the type of mind that PCB had and proved to the rest of the world that the way how he thought on every aspect was quite contrary to the traditional way of thinking. He was such a simple practical minded person that he never wanted fancy foreign grants, sophisticated equipment etc. to do research. Very often, he refused to indent equipment from foreign companies, as most of the orders did not materialise due to lack of foreign exchange etc. Perhaps this simple way of doing research must have learnt from the University of Cambridge from where he obtained his PhD degree about four decades ago. He was a marathon researcher although never wanted sophisticated equipment.

He published research papers regularly but at long intervals, unlike the present day researchers who published research papers almost annually or biannually, using the same data with a slight change in the text, so as to have a long list of publications to include in the cv to claim for merit promotions. This unique quality must have been acquired from the famous Berkeley laboratory of the US where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow for many years soon after his Cambridge Doctorate. He was so proud in working in that laboratory, as many leading physicists had worked there; he proudly narrated his experience there to his juniors. He was so research minded that he was able to publish a research paper in the American Journal of Physics, a few years before he died. He proudly said that he spent less than 100 rupees for the research, but the research paper embodying the results was accepted in the American Journal of Physics. The only equipment that he used for that research was a microscope that he took on loan from my laboratory.

Professor Fernando is one of the pioneers in teaching science in Sinhala, although he himself was not fully conversant in Sinhala, got his junior lecturers, who studied in the Sinhala medium to teach in Sinhala. He was an ardent practising Buddhist spent a very simple life until he died. Although his father was the very first Professor of Medicine at the University of Colombo, he was always a believer of self healing and reluctant to take even diagnosis tests, even two days before he died, his doctor niece tried to persuade him to take some blood test, which he refused. Last year his children admitted him to a local private hospital for a medical checkup under the care of late Dr. Wickrama Wijenaike, who was Professor Fernando’s father’s best medical student and research assistant, there too, he was very reluctant to undergo medical tests. This was revealed to me by late Dr. Wijenaike, who was my physician as well as one of my friends. PCB believed that by doing surgery and also taking drugs the natural balance of the body disturbs, thus, imbalances the homeostasis.

PCB used to visit Nugegoda Anula Vidyalaya when he was a youth, not merely to see the Buddhist girls there, but to keep company to his mother, as well as to drive her home after school, where she was the founder principal. Most people in this country know that she was the founder principal of Anula Vidyalaya. PCB’s father tirelessly worked to establish that school, his beautiful portrait on the wall of the office demonstrated how he was respected by Anulians. Thus, it proved beyond doubt that his entire family members were devoted Buddhists and loved academic activities as well.

Students who had learnt physics from him for almost half a century and for colleagues, who associated him as a scientist, may never forget the three letters PCB that was a synonym to late Professor Fernando’s name. His demise created a void, which is almost impossible to fill in the near future.

May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

Professor J. Jinadasa,
University of Sri Jayewardenepura.