ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 16, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 42

His humanity and humour made him what he was

Dr. Anthony GabrieL

Anthony (Tony) Gabriel, son of Dr. Vrasapillai Gabriel and Florence Mary Gabriel was born on January 10, 1925 in London. Dr. Vrasapillai was qualified as both a Physician and Surgeon having acquired both the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and the membership of the Royal College of Physicians of London. Florence Mary Gabriel, his mother was a gentle Irish lady who was a Nursing Sister in a London hospital. With this background, Tony naturally chose surgery as a career. We met in the corridors of College House, on Thurstan Road where we had both gone with mounting excitement to read the results of the Pre-Medical Examination which had been posted on the notice board. Formally, we shook hands with each other, and this was to be the beginning of a life-long friendship. In the Anatomy Block, both of us were "body partners" where, in the course of the following two years we had to dissect the human body, from head to toe.

When we joined the Medical College there were 60 new entrants in our batch, only eight of whom were girls. The majority of the students had come from the big schools in the island. We were a mixed crowd but moved freely with one another, united against the common enemy, the impending examinations. The teachers were a devoted lot who took immense trouble to see that the imparted knowledge was both understood and retained. Tony's father made sure that he imbibed everything "Ceylonese". He took Tony to all parts of the country during the holidays to move with the local people. In the jungles they camped under canvas. This acquaintance with rural life helped him to understand the problems of the rural folk who sought his medical services.

We studied under the stern, but amiable Professor of Anatomy Dr. P.K. Chanmugam. The demonstrators in Anatomy were a galaxy of later giants in their respective fields, - V. Fernands, P.R. Anthonis, George Ratnavale and A.T.S. Paul. We also had Professors Columbine and A.C.E. Koch in Physiology, and Professor A.A. Hoover in Biochemistry. The 'Block' was an unholy and tiresome place with aggressive seniors trying to inconvenience the freshers. Life was enlivened by the Annual Block Dance where Tony participated in some of the skits that were put on the boards. In due course we passed from the Block into Hospital, just across the road. By this time we had quite naturally formed small informal groups who tended to both study and play together. Our particular group consisted of Tony, Priyani, who was to become my future wife, Mangay and myself. Incidentally, the four of us were from different schools. The most interesting appointment was when we 'clerked' under Tony's father, and had many interesting interludes to recall. In the hospital Tony addressed his father as sir, and in turn Dr. Gabriel addressed Tony as Mr. Gabriel. The senior Gabriel was a hard taskmaster who demanded high standards from his students. The three of us were spared many of the stern admonitions, as they were directed mainly at Tony. We learned of professional conduct and medical ethics, and in terms of surgical technique it was neatness and precision in handling tissues.

The other medical appointments were under brilliant diagnosticians like Dr. Cyril Fernando, Dr. E.M. Wijerama, Professors P.B. Fernando and John R. Blaze. For Obstetrics and Gynaecology we apprenticed under the stern but lovable Dean, Professor, (later Sir) Nicholas Attygalle. Our resident appointments were full of fun, especially that of Public Health in Kalutara where the men stayed in the famous Teak Bungalow, and the women in the Convent.

We qualified in 1950. Five obtained First Classes, over twenty Seconds, and only seven were Referred. Tony and Priyani both obtained Firsts, and both Mangay and I obtained Upper Seconds. Three others also got Firsts, - Henry Nanayakkara, E.V. Pieris, and Nellie Perera. Apart from the last named who left the country to accept a post in Kuwait, all the others who obtained First, Second and Third Classes subsequently achieved eminence in the medical profession in this country and served with the ethics and professional standards that had been inculcated in us by teachers such as Dr. Vrasapillai Gabriel. Within one year Priyani and I were married. Tony was my best man. Tony was more excited than the bridegroom, and knocked the car containing the pretty bridesmaids, into a rickshaw on the Galle Road.

Tony embarked on a ship bound for England, but the ship was delayed in the harbour for loading, enabling us to go on board and enjoy lunch with him. Priyani and I left for England shortly afterwards for post-graduate studies. We had wonderful times together with Tony in both London and Edinburgh, where we often enjoyed gourmet food in restaurants chosen by Tony.

Tony qualified at the Final Fellowship examinations of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of England and Edinburgh, and returned to Ceylon in 1955. His first appointment was as Resident Surgeon at the General Hospital in Colombo. Later he was appointed in succession to the Consultant Surgical posts at Badulla, Jaffna and Galle. He was a conscientious surgeon, who cared deeply for his patients. He was a General Surgeon of the mould of Sir Charles Gordon Gordon-Taylor, with a special interest in Facio-Maxillary surgery, and was later honoured by the Royal College of Surgeons with an Honorary Fellowship in that sub-speciality. During this time he met and married Jeevamani, a pretty and sporting young lady from the Kadirgamar clan. Our families visited each other in the several outstations in which we both served, in the course of our lives in the provinces.

Tony's patients will testify to his surgical prowess and tender care. Later, he took to cancer surgery at Maharagama where he completely changed the outlook of the institution into a vibrant, dynamic one where patients received surgical and radio therapeutic care for their dreaded diseases.

As Chairman of the Board of Study in Surgery, he was instrumental in getting Oncology recognized as a speciality by the Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine. In the private sector too he had many a grateful patient. In sport he played both tennis and golf and was at one time the President of the Royal Colombo Golf Club. His love of cricket took him to the Vice Presidency of the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. He was active in the sphere of wildlife, and was a member of the wildlife society. Nothing pleased him more than a sojourn in the wildlife parks at Wilpattu, Yala and Kumana.

He was an active member of the University Dramatic Society, commonly called the 'Dram Soc' where he came under the direction of Professor E.F.C. Ludowyke. He acted in many plays with great distinction. He served on several committees and boards and contributed freely of his wisdom and experience, whether it was the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya or on the Council Boards of the College of Surgeons. As a soldier he was the Commandant of the Sri Lanka Army (Volunteer) Medical Corps and retired in the rank of full Colonel. During various insurgencies that have ravaged this country he has been mobilized and served in many outstations. Even after retirement he was an active member of the Officers’ Mess.

He had two sons, the elder a lawyer resident in England, and the younger a senior executive in a corporate giant. They too are sportsmen like their father. His younger son has been a national rugger player and the elder a keen angler. Both of us celebrated our golden wedding anniversaries within the past few years. We have been very close in our friendship in both joy and sorrow, spanning a period of six decades, and took part in each other's family occasions. Jeevamani and he were excellent hosts at the many dinners we had together. In Tony, we had a man who had done so much for others in his lifetime. One might quote Cicero and say "Ecce homo", here was a man.

With all his wit and iconoclastic remarks, he was a keen Churchman, who, to my knowledge observed the rituals of Lent with great care.

However, it is tempting to think that with his irrepressible sense of humour, he would have made a jocular remark about accommodation and ambience to the Custodian at the Pearly Gates as he passed through.

May he rest in peace.

By Ananda and Priyani Soysa

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