Then a surgeon, still a surgeon
In the first of a series that will portray personalities who witnessed momentous events in history, we feature the 94-year-old Dr. P.R. Anthonis who was by the side of S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike on that fateful day in 1959
By Chandani Kirinde
Friday, September 25, 1959 is etched in the collective psyche of a generation of Sri Lankans as the day when an assassin's bullet brought to an abrupt end the hopes and expectations millions of Sri Lankans had firmly placed on the shoulders of a much-revered leader, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Less then four years into his term as Prime Minister, Mr. Bandaranaike was shot at Tintagel, his Rosmead Place residence that morning as he met with members of the public.

For the next few hours as a gravely wounded Prime Minister fought for his life, the task of treating him fell largely on the hands of the country's most eminent surgeon Dr. P.R. Anthonis.

The day stands out in the memory of Polwattearachchige Romiel Anthonis, now 94 years old, a veteran of more than 100,000 surgeries and whose feat in the operating theatre is unmatched in the medical history of this country.

Born the second in a family of 16, on January 21, 1911 and hailing from Bambalapitiya, it was at St. Peter's College that the young Anthonis first showed his brilliance walking away with five prizes at the school prize giving in 1926. There was no stopping him thereafter, as he went onto emerge first in all examinations at the Medical College from 1930-1936 and win the coveted Government Diploma Medal which was awarded after a lapse of 11 years in 1936.

These are some of the events that Dr. Anthonis recalls when asked what he considers his greatest achievements.
His father started life as a carpenter earning 50 cents a day while his mother attended to the family of 11 sons and five daughters. "We were not rich at all but we had our own property at Bambalapitiya and a big garden which had jak, coconut and other vegetables," he said.

Later, his father found work at Brown & Company and at the age of ten, young Anthonis started his studies at St. Peter's College having had his earlier education at the Vajiraramaya and the Milagiriya Singhalese School.
" I think it was my father's skills as a carpenter that have been passed onto me and made me a good surgeon," he said.

Another important event in his life was his marriage to a wealthy lady from Kitulgala. He recalls his wedding day January 21, 1943 with a sense of nostalgia, as it was, coincidentally his birthday too. The wedding was at the bride's mansion in Kitulgala. "It was a big wedding. There were 2,000 guests. Esmond Wickremesinghe (father of former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe) was my best man," he recalled.

For 58 years he shared his life with his beloved wife Ruby whom he calls a "wonderful partner". "I was operating 24 hours a day. My wife attended to the domestic side. People liked her very much. She was a simple person," he recalled with fondness.

Dr. Anthonis has witnessed many of the turning points in the country's history. When the malaria epidemic hit the country in 1936, the same year he became a medical officer, there were no modern facilities with the doctors having to boil the quinine themselves to administer to the patients. When the Japanese raided Trincomalee in 1942, Dr. Anthonis was selected to go there as surgeon. And when the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, Dr. Anthonis and his wife were among the invitees to witness the ceremonial opening of Parliament.

One incident that people most remember to this day is the assassination of the country's Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959 and Dr. Anthonis recalls this vividly as he was one of the few people who witnessed the last few hours of the late Premier's life.

Dr. Anthonis who was on routine duty at the operating theatre of the Colombo General Hospital had already finished one operation and was about to start another when news of the shooting reached him.

" I was about to start on a new case - a gall bladder operation - when Mackie Ratwatte (brother of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike) shouted from the door of the operating theatre ‘My brother-in-law has been shot.’ Not knowing to whom he was referring, Dr. Anthonis had asked which brother-in-law it was, only to be told it was the Prime Minister who had been shot and was outside the theatre.

"With my surgeon's gloves on, I rushed out and saw the Prime Minister in the back seat of the car with his wife (Mrs. Bandaranaike).
“When I asked him how he was, he said he was alright and would walk to the operating theatre. But I felt his pulse. It was rapid and I knew he was bleeding internally."

And although the wounded Prime Minister wanted to walk into the theatre, a wheelchair was called for and he was wheeled straight into the theatre. And while for the next five and a half to six hours, a team of doctors led by Dr. Anthonis struggled to save Mr. Bandaranaike's life, thousands of people gathered outside the hospital as news of the attempt on his life reached every nook and corner of the country.

Dr. Anthonis recalled that the Prime Minister remained cheerful before surgery and said that a man in robes had shot him. " I only saw the black thing pointed at me from behind the robes. A man dressed as a monk shot me," the Prime Minister had told Dr. Anthonis.

Dr. Anthonis was also present as the Prime Minister dictated a message to the people of the country. His secretary was called for and Mr. Bandaranaike asked him to take down the message not in shorthand but long hand while he dictated it word- by-word.

A repeated request from the injured Prime Minister had been for clemency for his attacker. "Please don't ill-treat the man who shot me. He is a foolish man. Attend to him. Take care of him," he had pleaded. In his message, the gravely wounded Prime Minister said, "I appeal to all concerned to show compassion to this man and not to wreak vengeance on him."

After the operation, the Prime Minister had had a restful night and got up round 4.00 a.m. He had asked for a drink of orange barley and said he wanted to brush his teeth. Dr. Anthonis asked the Prime Minister to wait till the next day as his stomach had been badly wounded.

"It was around 8.00 a.m. and he was talking to me when he suddenly turned blue and was dead almost immediately," Dr. Anthonis recalled. It was a large blood clot that killed him and there was an inquest but no postmortem. The cause of death was declared to be "pulmonary embolism”.

The final bulletin announcing the Prime Minister's death too was issued by Dr. Anthonis along with two other doctors, T.D.H. Perera and M.J.A. Sandrasagara.
It said, "The condition of the Prime Minister suddenly turned for the worse at about 7.00 o’clock this morning. There was sudden alteration of the action of the heart and his condition deteriorated very fast. He passed off peacefully at about 8.00 a.m."

The Prime Minister lost his valiant battle against the assassin's bullet as did the doctors who fought so hard to save his life. Dr. Anthonis, though had another final task to perform for the late Premier. He was one of the pallbearers at his funeral as he joined thousands of mourners as the "common man's leader" was laid to rest.

At 94, Dr. Anthonis who was awarded the highest national honour for a civilian - Deshamanya - in 1986, continues to see patients and perform surgery. He also finds the time to attend social gatherings to which he gets frequent invitations. And whether he is attending a bank board meeting or a meeting of a society in which he is a member, Dr. Anthonis does so with the same zest and vigour of his younger days.

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