by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 13, 2015
Only in late December 2014, while web-surfing, I received the sad message that Professor Mano Sabaratnam (1931-2014) had died in October 2014. After I left the blessed island in 1981, for obvious reasons, I never had contact with her via letters, email or phone. But, she was a constant presence in my thoughts. Why?
She was my first mentor in scientific research, while I was an undergraduate at the University of Colombo. For five years of my salad days, from 1973 to 1977, Mano influenced my thoughts tremendously and introduced me to the principles of scientific research via the contributions of British entomologist Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (1899-1994). When I was in my final year (1975), Mano assigned the first research problem for me. This was, testing the efficacy of a few brands of mosquito coils sold in Sri Lanka. For this project, I had to first breed mosquitoes in the lab! What a strategy to get a rookie’s hands dirty? Then, catch the mosquitoes from the breeding basin by hand (!) without killing them and count a definite number of mosquitoes (100 was an easy number), and transfer and release them in a room carpeted with white cloth. Next step was burning the mosquito coil for 12 hours in night. Then, the following morning, count the number of mosquitoes which had died or immobilized. I did manage to collect some data on mosquito kill rate; but I wasn’t sure how effective my crude method was. Nevertheless, it was the sort of introduction I had to my research career. Mano was also the first one to impress on me in appreciating the poetic talent of King Poet Kannadasan (1927-1981). Then, I didn’t think that Kannadasan was such a great Tamil poet. I merely thought of him as a cinema lyricist.
For respect, I never addressed her by honorific name (then, she was Dr. Sabaratnam) or clipped first name (Mano) or ‘Madam’. But, she would address me (in Tamil) as ‘Nee’ (Second person, singular word without honorifics). This was perfectly OK for me, because my parents also used the same ‘Nee’ for me. There is no doubt that there are thousands of students and commoners who were influenced by the deeds of Mano, in Colombo and Batticaloa since 1980s. But, I have the pride of being the first of such kind in 1973. She had just returned after her Ph.D. degree from University of Edinburgh. If I’m not mistaken, she is originally from Nallur in Jaffna district. Though she yearned to move to the University of Jaffna in late 1970s from University of Colombo, because her friendly rival Prof. V.K. Ganesalingam (from the University of Peradeniya) had moved to the University of Jaffna, Mano had to opt to move the Eastern University, Batticaloa.
For reminiscence, I provide two excerpts from my 2004 autobiography, ‘Tears and Cheers: Tale of a Tamil Scientist’, in which Prof. Sabaratnam appears.
“Dr. Mano Sabaratnam would be a strong influence on me for the next five years, until the end of 1977, since I apprenticed in Entomology under her.” (p. 47)
“I had requested my entomology mentor Dr. Mano Sabaratnam to forward a referee’s report to support by M.Sc. application to the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture in Peradeniya. She graciously showed me what she had written in the section about her opinion on my competence and performance at the undergraduate level. She said, though in principle, referee’s report is supposed to be confidential, she wanted me to know what she had written so that I could prepare my answer to any questions raised at the oral interview.
‘Give your opinion on the applicant’s
- Intellectual capacity, scholastic level and ability to undertake research: Intelligent and hardworking, but a very poor exam student. Excellent research worker.
- Relative standing amongst his university contemporaries: Was well above the average student in analyzing and drawing conclusions under any situations.
- Ability to follow courses and to undertake research in the English medium: Very good.
- Practical experience in the chosen field of study: Offered entomology as a special field of study for the Special degree in Zoology and researched a very good standard.’ (p. 61) ‘
Now 38 years later, when I read Mano’s 1977 evaluation of my abilities, I agree it was (and is) perfect to the dot. For want of a good sponsor and research funding, I had to switch my primary research interest from Entomology to Biochemistry to Food Chemistry to Neurobiology to Behavioral biology. Thus, among my 125 research publications so far (since 1981), only one (a short letter at that, in the Nature journal in 1988; 336: 316-317) was in Entomology. But, what I learnt from Prof. Sabaratnam’s introduction to principles in biological research was a guiding light to my career as a scientist.
Professor Sabaratnam was single. Maybe because of that, she did care for younger generations of Sri Lanka, Tamils in particular. This care did land her in trouble occasionally with the slimy politicians. One was the celebrated case of then powerful Cyril Mathew (1912-1989), Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs and a Tamil-baiter, accusing her as showing partiality to the Tamil medium students at the university entrance exam in 1978. M. Sivasithamparam, the then leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front, defended the honor of Prof. Sabaratnam in the parliament. To his credit, Rajan Hoole had included a synopsis of this issue in his book, ‘Sri Lanka – The Arrogance of Power – Myths, Decadence and Murder’ (2001), in a page. But, being uninitiated, he had omitted mentioning the name of Prof. Sabaratnam! I remember discussing this issue with her. Talks about filing a defamation case against Cyril Mathew was presented by some activists. Mano casually dismissed such a strategy that as long as Mr. Mathew remained a cabinet minister, it would be a futile issue. Knowing the vagaries of subtle political influence on judiciary in Sri Lanka, she opted that such a defamation case with political overtones could be won, only when he was out of power. Though Mr. Mathew was expelled from the Cabinet by J.R. Jayewardene in 1984, as situation in the island had tragically turned from bad to worse by then, I guess the idea of a defamation case against Mr. Mathew was dropped altogether.
Though Professor Sabaratnam did not publish much, her influence can be felt in the publications of her students (among whom I count myself as one) she trained in Sri Lanka. Among the women academics in Sri Lanka who had to face bullets of sexism and power harassment, she was indeed a pioneer. I was able to locate only three of her published research papers. These are as follows:
Sabaratnam M: The biology of Gregarina fernandoi in the cockroach Pycnosceleus surinamensis with observation on its development and cytochemical nature. Journal of Protozoology, 1971; 18: 141-146.
Sabaratnam M: Hormonal control of resilin deposition in the blowfly Calliphora erythrocephala. Journal of Insect Physiology, 1974; 20(6): 935-946.
Yosida TH, Moriwaki K, Kato H, Tsuchiya K, Sabaratnam M, Arulpragasam KD and Fernando HE: Notes on the distribution of the Ceylonese type black rats in Sri Lanka. Proceedings of Japan Academy, series B, 1979; 55: 351-356.