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.
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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
" 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
final bulletin announcing the Prime Minister's death too was issued
by Dr. Anthonis along with two other doctors, T.D.H. Perera and
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."
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.
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