Saturday, March 04, 2006


The death of Muhammad Uvais Sideek Sultan Bawa on May 7, 1999, remopved from our midst the foremost chemist of post-independent Sri Lanka. A son of Ruhuna, born and bred in Galle,, Sultanbawa showed hos scholarship and promise in his early days at St Aloysious’ College, Galle.
He entered the University of Ceylon and while progressing towards his degree in Chemistry, cruel fate downed him with sickness just before his final examination. Undeterred by this, a characteristic courage which he was to display on many occasions in later life too, Sultanbawa took the London University Examination and netted a First Class Degree. He joined the then Industrial Research Lasboratory established by D.H. Balfour and for a time served as one of the “Balfour boys”.

His preference for academic life soon brought him to the Department of Chemistry of the University of Ceylon. He went to the Imperial College London for his PhD and worked for Professors E A Braude and L N Owen. He returned to his native land in 1945. A batch of young chemistry (special) students, did not take too kindly at first to the new lecturer in the blue suit, who at that time failed to appreciate his new approach to chemistry teaching, with the accent on literature reading. It may even be stated that he was not the best of communicators. However, his great enthusiasm for the subject did rub off on some. He laid the foundation for a research-based university course and encouraged the investigative mentality in students.

Sultanbawa launched himself into the work of the Chemistry Society of Ceylon, now the Institute of Chemistry, and the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, later the SLAA, as its General Secretary. He enthused students at that time and many of them assisted him and his good friend and colleague the late Professor Stanley Wijesundera and his research partner Jinapala Alles, in the organization of a series of islandwide school science exhibitions under the wing of the CAAS. Sultanbawa’s interaction with the chemistry students of the time in this endeavor brought out the best in him.

Professor Eric Fonseka, the then head of the Chemistry department following the death of Professor Kandiah, left the organization and moved to Peradeniya with Sultanbawa. Indeed, this writer feels strongly that the University of Peradeniya would do justice by naming the department after him, “the Sultanbawa Department of Chemistry”. For many years Peradeniya Chemistry was synonymous internationally with the name of Sultanbawa. He built its research tradition. The tribute paid by his colleagues, on his 75th birthday anniversary a few years ago bears testimony to his incomparable contribution to the teaching of Chemistry in Sri Lanka, and in particular to the Peradeniya campus.

Both in his career as a research scientist and in his role of a scientific leader in his country many honors came his way. He was conferred with a Vidya Jothi by HE the President of Sri lanka. Sultanbawa was made a Fellow of the Indian National Academy, and was a winner of the Guinness Award for Scientific Achievement in 1978. He and his research team at Peradeniya also won a Presidential Award for their research work, besides being recognized worldwide as one of the leading schools of research on natural products. Sultanbawa was a dynamic man with skill, dedication, and a philosophy that helped him keep his sense of dignity and balance despite hard luck that might come his way. This indeed was, apart from his special skills, the secret of his success. There was one other and that was his wife Sithna, whom every student and colleague voted was the ideal scientists’ wife. She was a friend to them all, and a pillar of strength in a most unostentatious manner to her husband. As much as one lauded Sultanbawa himself, one was charmed by his talented family of two sons and two daughters.

The Sultanbawa family lost their father and their country Sri lanka lost one of its great sons, after a long and productive innings. Sultanbawa’s name and influence will remain for many generations through his students and the research colleagues and members of the chemical fraternity.

Daily News Wed May 12, 1999


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