Notes on Four pre-1950 Ph.D Recipients among Eelam Tamils

by Sachi Sri Kantha, September 7, 2021

University of Vavuniya was the 17th public university to be established in Sri Lanka in Aug 1, 2021. With a total of 17 universities in Sri Lanka now, an earned Ph.D degree is now dime a dozen (figuratively at least) among Sri Lankans. But 70 years ago (in the pre-1950 period), having an earned Ph.D was a rare honor. I’m not aware of who received the first earned Ph.D among Eelam Tamils, if we exclude savant Ananda Kent Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), who had Tamil-British parents.

For the record, I provide elementary details about Ph.D dissertations, the university and the year, of four academics who belong to a unique category of pre-1950 Ph.Ds among Eelam Tamils. In chronological order,

Albert Arthur Hoover: Investigations into Vitamin E and other substances found in the non-saponifiable fraction of wheat germ oil. University College, London, Ph.D. 1937.

Arumugam Wisvalingam Mailvaganam (1906-1987): Studies in flame fluorescence, Cambridge University, Ph.D. 1939.

Christie Jayaratnam Eliezer (1918-2001): The effect of radiation damping on the motion of electrons, Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1946.

Velupillai Appapillai (1913-2001): On the composition and origin of cosmic rays at sea level. University of London, Ph.D., 1946.

Subsequently, all four held professorial positions in their respective disciplines at the Colombo and Peradeniya universities. Mailvaganam and Appapillai were physicists. While Hoover was a biochemist, Eliezer was a mathematician.

What is remarkable among these select four was the fact that three of them had Nobel laureates in science as mentors. Mailvaganam’s mentor was Ernest Rutherford. Eliezer’s mentor was Paul Dirac. Appapillai’s mentor was P.M.S. Blackett. Hoover’s mentor was Jack Cecil Drummond (1891-1952), a distinguished biochemist, who was murdered with his 2nd wife and 10 year old daughter, while vacationing in France.

Golden Jubilee 1975, Sachi Sri Kantha seated in the center (4th from the left), Professor Hoover (3rd from the left; to Sachi’s right)

Among these four, in 2012, I had written a book review on Christie Eliezer to this site. https://www.sangam.org/2012/07/Prof_CJ_Eliezer.php?uid=4791. Though I didn’t have any direct contact with Prof. Eliezer, in 1990s, his wife Ranee Eliezer and I were able to exchange thoughts via postal letters on a couple of occasions. Before this link with Mrs. Eliezer, during my undergraduate days, Prof. Eliezer’s nephew Kumar Eliezer was a senior and great pal to me at the University of Colombo, in early 1970s.

In addition, I was lucky enough to be acquainted with Prof. Hoover for three years, between 1973 and 1975, during my undergraduate days at the then University of Sri Lanka (Colombo Campus).

While irrigation engineer S. Arumugam’s biographical compilation Dictionary of Biography of Tamils of Ceylon (London, 1997) has brief entries on Mailvaganam, Eliezer and Appapillai, an entry is sadly missing on Prof. Hoover. As such, for the digital record, I wish to contribute the following about my acquaintance with him.

 

Professor Albert Arthur Hoover

For two years (1973-1974), Prof. Hoover was one of my lecturers in biochemistry. Now I can say that I failed to create a good impression on him, during these two years, because of my poor performance in biochemistry exams. If memory serves, I remember he thought as ‘Lipids’ section, from the venerable text book Albert Lehninger’s Biochemistry (1970). In my twisted opinion, he was not an impressive lecturer.

Though he carried the ‘Americanized Christian name’ Hoover, he was a Christian Tamil from Jaffna. Unfortunately, I don’t have his dates of birth and death. As he had received his Ph.D. two years ahead of Prof. Mailvaganam, it could be inferred that he was born in the first decade of the 20th century.

Golden Jubilee Messages for Colombo Campus Tamil Sangam, Thinakaran, May 24, 1975

I was elected as the President of the Colombo Campus Tamil Society in October 15, 1974, for its Golden Jubilee Year, 1974-75. As Prof. Hoover was the patron of this society, I had to visit his room infrequently related to the society events and for financial discussions. I remember interviewing him about his student days at the Ceylon Medical College in 1920s, for a newspaper feature. One of my memorable photos was the group photo taken in 1975 to felicitate this Golden Jubilee anniversary year of our committee, presented nearby. In this, as the president of the society, I was seated in the center (4th from the left) between two esteemed professors – Professor Hoover (3rd from the left; to my right) and Tamil professor A. Sathasivam (5th from the left; to my left). To Professor Hoover’s right was Prof. Kandiah Balasubramaniam (2nd from the left), who succeeded Prof. Hoover, at the University of Jaffna in 1980s. A Thinakaran (Colombo) newspaper clipping of May 24, 1975, carrying the messages of Prof. Hoover, Prof. Sathasivam and mine is scanned and presented as well.

Prof. Balasubramaniam was a good pal of my father. My poor performance in biochemistry in 1974 dismayed Prof. Balasubramaniam. He had frankly told this to my father. I had recorded this in my diary entry of Dec 10, 1974, as follows:

 “Father told me disappointingly that Dr. Balasubramaniam (Biochemistry department) had told him – ‘It will be a miracle if he [that’s me] get through the Special Final exam, with a pass.’

Of course, I was disappointed to hear this. I turned on the radio at 5.45 pm. The song I heard was a pathos melody in the voice of M.S. Anuradha, from the 1955 movie, ‘Nam Kuzandhai’ (Our Child). The lyrics of Tanjai Ramaiah Das reverberated in my ears,

Kaanal neerai maan kanda kathai thaana [Was it a story of the deer which was fooled by a mirage] ILavu kaatha kiLi naana [Am I a parrot which waited for the cotton fruit to ripe?]

My mood was down. But, it was lifted up by the 6:00 pm news that dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn will receive the 1970 Nobel literature prize, awarded to him four years earlier. This encouraged me that one can move mountains, by one’s own conviction and persistence.

With a bit of luck, I did get through the Final exam with a pass in 1976, and Prof. Balasubramaniam’s prediction about my performance was not far off! Simply I hated the rote learning process and the archaic testing methods used then. Among my batch of eight zoology special students graduating in 1976, I was ranked probably sixth!

In the courses, which I liked best, I performed best and received commendable grades. But, in the rote-learning courses which I hated, I performed worst and received abysmal grades! After being offered to work as a temporary one year job as laboratory instructor in zoology at the University of Colombo by the then Prof. K. D. Arudpragasam (1931-2003), I moved to the University of Peradeniya in 1977, to complete a Master’s degree course at the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture. In March 1978, I was hired as a temporary assistant lecturer in biochemistry by Prof. Thomas W. Wikramanayake (1918-2008). About my interactions with Prof. Wikramanayake, I have to write a separate reminiscence later.

Once the Medical Faculty was opened at the University of Jaffna in 1978, Prof. Hoover moved to Jaffna and served as the founder Dean of the Faculty from 1978 to 1981. The last time I met Prof. Hoover was at the interview for a permanent assistant lecturer position in biochemistry, at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna on February 6, 1981. 40 years had passed since then. Here are two of my diary entries, in which I have recorded the advice of Prof. Balasubramaniam and facing this interview.

 

February 1, 1981/ Sunday

In the morning I went to Railway Avenue, Nugegoda to hand over the reference forms for my application to the University of Illinois, to Prof. Balasubramaniam. With him I discussed my future plans as well. He advised me to go and face the interview in Jaffna University. He told that this time, I’m having a good chance of getting selected, and this chance may not come all the time. I also agreed with him.”

 

“February 6, 1981/ Friday

At Jaffna. For the interview [for assistant lecturer position]. I was at the Senate room of the University of Jaffna, by 9 am. This is the 2nd time I had come to Jaffna to face an interview. There were 4 others, with Chemistry (Special) degree and Kuganadan with B.V.Sc & M.Sc degree from London. I was called in around 10:30 am. Prof. Hoover, Dr. V. Parameswaran, Prof. S. Vithiananthan, S. Ambigaipakan were the individuals I was able to recognize in the board. They didn’t question much on my experience. But they were insisting on my possession of the originals of my M.Sc. certificates.”

The eventual outcome was that Prof. Hoover choose me for this position, in preference to other five who competed with me. Simultaneously, I also received an offer from Prof. John W. Erdman with a research assistantship for my Ph.D studies at the University of Illinois. For me, that was a moment in my life of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ .

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both….

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I opted to leave the island in August 1981. My diary entries in April 1981 indicate that in making this decision, I did consult two of my colleagues at the universities of Peradeniya and Colombo.

 

“Diary entry April 15, 1981/ Wednesday

I discussed with Dissa [Dr. Senarath Dissanayake] about my Jaffna (University) appointment. He said that, now being appointed, I have the ‘cards’ to play, requesting the administration to give me paid leave for my studies abroad, or release me. He advised to use the term ‘release’, which no one knows to define clearly.”

 

“Diary entry April 18, 1981/ Saturday

Dr. Kumar Eliezer came home. I informed him that I had been selected for Jaffna University biochemistry post. He was happy about it. When asked, how can I get release from the Department, he suggested that now it’s my turn to play the cards, and as I have an offer, I can really negotiate the terms.”

When I suggested my request to Prof. S. Vithiananthan (the then Vice Chancellor, University of Jaffna), he was NOT willing to release me for my postgraduate studies immediately. So, reluctantly, I had to reject the offer given by Prof. Hoover. By leaving for USA, I lost the opportunity to join the biochemistry department. Subsequently, another verbal offer to join the Department of Biochemistry was made by Prof. Balasubramaniam, who had replaced Prof. Hoover, in November 1986 when I visited Jaffna after my Ph D. But, this story has to wait later.

For Prof. Hoover’s generation, research was not a high priority. As such, his time and energy was more focused on teaching and institution building. Thus, Prof. Hoover’s productivity as a biochemist was moderate indeed. As he belonged to the ‘vitamin discovery period of biochemistry’ (1930s-40s), almost all his publications were on vitamin assays and mineral analyses.

 

List of Publications of Prof. A.A. Hoover

Drummond JC, Hoover AA. ccxxix. Studies on vitamin E (Tocopherol). Biochemical Journal, 1937; 31(10): 1852-1860.

Hoover AA. Vitamin F (Linoleic acid) in sesame oil. Ceylon Journal of Science (section D), 1939; 5(2): 55-57.

Hoover AA. The analysis of Ceylon foodstuffs. X – Mineral analyses of some local yams and vegetables. Tropical Agriculturist, 1941; 97: 185-187.

Fernando PB, Jayawardene SF. Hoover AA, Balasingham S, Wilson JR. Salacia reticulate in the treatment of diabetes mellitus. Journal of Ceylon Branch of British Medical Association, 1942; 39(4): 186-196.

Hoover AA, Karunairatnam MC. Oxalate content of some leafy green vegetables and its relation to oxaluria and calcium utilization. Biochemical Journal, 1945; 39(3): 237-238.

Hoover AA, Wijesinha GS. Influence of pH and salts on the solubility of calcium oxalate. Nature, 1945; 155: 638.

Hoover AA. Rice – an appraisal of its nutritive value. Tropical Agriculturist, 1951; 107: 3-8.

Hoover AA, Jayasuriya GCN. Microbiological assay of vitamins 1: thiamine. Ceylon Journal of Medical Science, 1950; 7(2): 66-72.

Hoover AA, Jayasuriya GCN. Nutritional aspects of pure line paddy. Tropical Agriculturist, 1951; 107: 9-14.

Hoover AA, Jayasuriya GCN. Microbiological assay of vitamins. 2: riboflavin. Ceylon Journal of Medical Science, 1953; 8(3): 183-189.

Hoover AA, Sentheshanmuganathan S. Specificity of Lactobacillus fermenti -36 for the assay of thiamine. I: Factors in the growth medium influencing the essentiality of this vitamin for this organism. Ceylon Journal of Medical Science, 1954; 8(4): 211-221.

Sentheshanmuganathan S, Hoover AA. Some aspects of the destruction of lysine under conditions of acid and enzymatic hydrolysis of protein materials containing carbohydrates. Biochemical Journal, 1958; 68(4): 621-626.

*****

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