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Percival Gerald (Gerry) Cooray, 1920-2003

Percival Gerald Cooray died on 4 January 2003 at his home at Hindagala, Sri Lanka. He had been in poor health for a number of years though this did not seem to dim his energy when he visited London to pursue his research in the Geological Society Library. However at 82 his heart finally gave out and he died quietly in his sleep.

I knew Gerry at university, when in 1949 he and I began our geology degree courses at Imperial College, London. Our class all realised he was more mature than those of us who had come straight from school, but did not know that he already had a degree in Geography from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). We found he was a good musician. I well remember pumping the bellows at the back of an organ in an old Irish church while he played something truly magnificent out front. Long after, I found that he had directed a symphonic choir in Colombo, conducting Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (no less) in Bach. In fact he had said of himself: “with a hammer in one hand and a conductor's baton in the other”.

Cooray was born in Malaya, where his father was a senior journalist. His musical education began at an early age and at 14 he was organist at the Methodist Church in Kuala Lumpur. Later he attended University College in Sri Lanka, taking an honours degree in geography, and playing hockey as centre forward. Later, as an Assistant Demonstrator for two years at the College, he met D N Wadia, well known for his work on Himalayan geology, who had been asked to set up what eventually became the Geological Survey of Sri Lanka. More than anyone else, it was he who influenced Gerry to become a geologist - and in 1946 he was appointed Assistant Geologist. It was from there that he was sent to Imperial College, London to take a geology degree, gaining First Class Honours in 1952.

He then worked with the Geological Survey, mapping parts of Sri Lanka, determining the boundary between the Charnockite Metasedimentary Series and the Vijayan Series. In 1959 he returned to Imperial College for his doctorate (on a Colombo Plan Scholarship) where he began the compilation of The Geology of Ceylon. Back in Sri Lanka he continued with the Survey but in 1966 was invited to become Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Ife, Nigeria, where he was Professor and Head of Department until 1972. He was then asked to set up the new School of Mines in Zambia, of which he became the first Dean. He also lectured at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and was senior editor with the Directorate General for Mineral Resources there.

On return to Sri Lanka in 1986 he was associated with the Institute of Fundamental Studies at Kandy, and was Visiting Lecturer at Peradeniya University until 1996.

His academic career concentrated on igneous rocks, especially charnockites, and he has over 100 published papers and articles to his name. Several books include The Geology of Sri Lanka (1984), and in preparation, a follow-up book The Geology and Mineral Resources of Sri Lanka, intended to mark the centenary of the Geological Survey of Sri Lanka in 2003. Finally, perhaps his greatest work is Pioneers of the Geosciences, the result of five years’ library research, consisting of concise and easily readable accounts of 73 pioneers of various geoscience disciplines. I have the privilege of editing and producing this volume to publication standard.

Cooray’s finest achievement must be his contribution to geological education, including the formation of the Geology Department at Ife, and the School of Mines at Lusaka. He contributed to the formation of the Geological Society of Sri Lanka, and urged the establishment of a Faculty of Ocean Science, which was established at Ruhuna University (Sri Lanka). In 1985 he also urged, successfully, that Earth Sciences education should be provided in Sri Lanka’s schools.

His influence was felt internationally. He became Chairman of the IUGS Commission on Geoscience Education and Training (COGEOED), and he inaugurated the GEOSAS conference series, (the South Asian Geological Congress), of which the first was held in 1991 in Pakistan.

He was President of the Association of Geoscientists for International Development (AGID), during which the COGEOED Conference on Geoscience Education was held at Southampton, England. AGID also sponsored him to give three-day Workshops on writing and editing, the first in Colombo in 1986, and he went on to give over 50 of these highly successful meetings in many locations in South Asia.

Honours came to him in later years. He was proud to be elected Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society of America. The Geological Society of Sri Lanka annually awards the P G Cooray Medal to the most outstanding young Sri Lankan geologist. But his greatest pride was reserved for the unofficial title "Godfather of GEOSAS". He leaves a widow, Joan, who lives in Hindagala, and a daughter Shantini with grandson Jamie, who live in North London

Deryck Laming