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Professor Gopal Singh Puri (1915-1995)
During his nearly eighty years Professor Gopal Singh Puri not only achieved academic distinction but also exemplified a mature synthesis of East and West and of spiritual intuition with scientific enquiry. He inspired others by generosity and openness to fresh insights.
Born in undivided Punjab, into a Pothohari family, his Sikh faith engendered a quest for global human values, unprejudiced by sectarianism. His wide ecological concern for the planet was matched by a profound sense of responsibility for his family.
Gopal Singh’s parents were primary school teachers in Peshawar. From an early age he won scholarships, often studying under the street lamp and tutoring British soldiers for their compulsory Urdu test in order to pay for his education.
He was a distinguished B.Sc student at Islamia College, Peshawar and as a student of Palaeobotany at Gordon College, Rawalpindi, he collected fossils in Kashmir which are still used by students at the college. For his M.Sc on Pleistocene flora he was in 1939 awarded a first class. This was followed by his Ph D thesis on fossil botany for which he won the Ruchi Ram Sahni prize.
Dr Gopal Singh’s wartime job as Malaria Officer in the Malir hospital, Karachi, was curtailed when he was appointed to a post first in the university of Agra and, almost immediately afterwards, in the university of Lucknow where he was elected to a fellowship funded by Burmah Oil Company. As Research Fellow he investigated the microbotanical remains of Assam teritary sediments. In 1945 he was awarded a Government of India research fellowship in plant ecology in order to study for a second doctorate at University College London and the Kew Herbarium.
In 1943 he had married Veranwali - subsequently Kailash Puri - who, with his unstinting encouragement, was to become a well-known Punjabi writer and personality. She joined him in London and here their son, Shaminder, the first of three children, was born.
On returning to his recently partitioned homeland, where his family were now refugees from the west of the Pakistan border, Gopal Singh Puri was appointed as Forest Ecologist and Technical Secretary of the Indian Council of Ecological research in Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun. From here, in 1956, the family moved to Poona (Pune) where he worked as Regional Director (Botanist) in the Agricultural Survey of India. Then, after a brief term as Director of the Central Botanical Laboratory in Allahabad, he was invited to Nigeria in 1961 to set up the botanical laboratory in Ibadan. Two years later he was appointed Professor and Head of the Botany Department in the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana.
From West Africa, where they travelled extensively, the family (now including two daughters, Kiran and Risham) moved to Britain. Here, Professor Puri was appointed to the staff of Liverpool Polytechnic. The gracious hospitality of the Puri’s home (Bucklands) endeared him and Kailash to countless friends. Here too he helped her in producing a Punjabi magazine, Roopvati, and shared his interest in yoga and meditation with enquirers. In retirement from academic science he gladly accepted invitations to speak on yoga and relaxation and practised India’s ancient system of Ayurvedic medicine.
His belief that a sound ecological balance was inseparable from harmony both within the human psyche and between individuals and groups anticipated more widespread recognition of this principle and is expressed in his numerous publications which in the last three years include : Multicultural Society and Sikh Faith, Self Realisation in Sikhism, and Environmental Crisis and Sikh Faith. This last book appeared two days before his sudden death in Liverpool - after a happy programme of visits as a distinguished guest to Indian and Pakistani universities.
Always prepared to be unconventional and to face new challenges, Professor Puri drew spiritual strength from the Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, which accompanied him overseas and was appropriately honoured by being installed in an upper room in successive houses. His loyalty to his religious roots was also symbolised by his turban, an unfamiliar sight in many overseas venues.
In recent years these included a number of gatherings for interfaith dialogue in which his warm personality together with an enquiring and open mind added to the depths of discussion and spiritual exploration. His eclectic nature and wide reading in a number of disciplines and languages meant that he added distinctively to the Sikhs’ contribution to British life and inter-cultural understanding. He will be widely missed. He is survived by his wife, Kailash, their son and two daughters and eight grandchildren. REF Sikh Review.