The last hours of a great statesman

The 57th death anniversary of Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake falls today. We publish here the chapter from the book Don Stephen Senanayake by H.A.J. Hulugalle titled 'The Last Phase’.

On Friday, March 21, 1952, the Prime Minister was taking his usual pre-breakfast ride in the Galle Face Green in Colombo along with two friends, Sir Richard Aluwihare, the Inspector General of Police and Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam, one of the ministers of his Cabinet. He was in his sixty-eighth year but was a strong horseman.

The horse broke into a gallop from a canter. After it had continued for more than a mile, the Prime Minister fell off the saddle and somersaulted twice before he alighted on his side. He was taken to a nursing home where he remained unconscious for the next 32 hours. It is believed that he was affected by a stroke. He was under the care of Dr. M.V.P. Pieris, Ceylon's senior surgeon, assisted by Dr. R. MacCharles, Associate Professor of Surgery of Manitoba University, who was in Ceylon as a member of a World Health Organization medical mission.

At Dr. Pieris's request a broadcast message was beamed to England which was picked up by amateurs on the 19-metre short wave. The message stated: "Will the British Broadcasting Corporation contact professor Hugh Cairns at Oxford 5813 and ask him to telephone Dr. Pieris, Colombo, 9351. It concerns the health and life and death of our Prime Minister".

DS with his favourite horse which he rode most mornings

The B.B.C received many telephone calls from radio hams who had picked up the message. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, was told. He gave the order: "Spare nothing. Get a plane in the air at once". The Post Office engineers in London opened a link between Sir Hugh Cairns at Oxford and Dr. M.V. P. Pieris.

At 9.18 p.m. the telephone rang in Sir Hugh's house. At 9.27 he replaced the receiver and decided to fly out to Ceylon. A Royal Air Force Hastings Aircraft was made ready to fly him at 4.30 a.m. To reduce stops on the flight it was arranged for two crews to go aboard the aircraft so that they could have alternate spells of rest and duty. (Sir Hugh Cairns was Nuffield Professor of Surgery at Oxford University and Consulting Neuro-surgeon to the London Hospital. He became famous during the last world war for his delicate brain operations on wounded men.

He was called to attend on Lawrence of Arabia and the American General, George S. Patton). His team for the journey to Ceylon included his Assistant, Mr. Walpole Lewin, two other doctors and two nurses. Their baggage was loaded and the plane was tuning up on the runway when, at 2.10 a.m., a telephone message was received from Ceylon by the Island's High Commissioner in London saying that the Prime Minister was sinking, and advising that the flight be called off. Meanwhile, the leading neurosurgeons of India and Pakistan were on their way to Ceylon. Both Dr. Jacob Chandy of the American Hospital at Vellore and Dr. D. Jooma of the Jinnah Hospital at Karachchi reached Colombo when it was already too late. The Prime Minister's life had come to a peaceful end at 3.30 p.m. on March 22, 1952.

The embalmed remains were taken to "Temple Trees", the Prime Minister's official residence where they lay till next morning, when they were removed to the House of Representatives of which he had been the leading figure for so many years. Over half a million persons filed past the body, the queue sometimes stretching over three miles. An estimated 32,000 took part in the funeral procession, with six Buddhist monks of the different 'nikayas' (sects) taking part in the religious ceremony.

Within a few hours of the Prime Minister's death messages of sympathy began to flow from all parts of the world.

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