Exceptional scientist who took the time to “stand and stare”

Professor Sunitha Wickramasinghe will be remembered as an exceptional and outstanding scientist of our times. As an academic haematologist he was one of the world’s leading authorities on congenital dyserythropoietic anaemias, and set the benchmarks for their diagnosis and management.

His other areas of expertise included the pathophysiology of thalassaemias, megaloblastic anaemia and the effects of alcohol toxicity on the bone marrow. His motivation was partly fuelled by his formidable intellectual curiosity and rigorous scientific enquiry but equally by his humanity. As a clinician he artfully married his scientific knowledge with great sensitivity and understanding of the broader context of illness to the appreciation of many patients over the years.

Wickramasinghe was born in Colombo, to Percival and Therese and was the second of their four sons- all of whom are distinguished scientists. His father studied mathematics at Cambridge and was admitted as a Wrangler.

Sunitha distinguished himself at the country’s premier state school, Royal College, Colombo, where he won prizes in all sciences, and was top performer at the medical entrance exam. He qualified as a doctor at the University of Ceylon with a distinction in Medicine in 1964 and came over to the UK following that. Within two years, he took his first steps in his chosen field of haematology; like his father, his research began at the University of Cambridge, where he was elected to a Gulbenkian Research Studentship.

After a further spell of research at the University of Leeds, he joined the academic staff of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London in 1970, where he was to spend the rest of his working life; he was appointed Professor of Haematology in his thirties, and held this post until his retirement in 2000. He was acting Deputy Dean at Imperial College School of Medicine at St Mary’s for one year in 1997.

Wickramasinghe’s postgraduate education and research at the University of Cambridge led to his admission to the degree of PhD in 1968, his election to the John Lucas Walker Senior (post-doctoral) Studentship in 1968, which contributed to his admission to the degree of ScD in 1984. The land of his birth honoured him by making him an Honorary Fellow of the Sri Lanka College of Haematology, and in 2005 invited him to give the Sri Lanka Medical Society’s Oration. In his chosen field, he was elected to Fellowships of the Royal College of Pathologists, and also the Institute of Biology. The Royal College of Physicians honoured him in 1987 with his admission to Honorary Membership in recognition of “exceptionally distinguished contributions in the field of medicine”, and his later admission to the Fellowship in 1991.

He was a prolific contributor to numerous medical and scientific journals throughout the world and was the author of over 230 original articles. He was invited to write or edit no less than eight books on Haematology. His main focus of interest was bone marrow. He was particularly interested in the pathophysiology of the bone marrow in various diseases, including congenital dyserythropoietic anaemias, thalassaemia and megaloblastic anaemias.

His extensive knowledge of this area of haematology, together with his ability to deliver a succinct message resulted in a constant stream of invitations to lecture all over the world, which he undertook even during his final illness and its associated treatment. His collaboration spanned all continents, with projects in Africa, Italy, USA, China, Thailand, Sweden, Egypt and New Zealand. His research interests extended to the ultrastructure of normal and abnormal bone marrow. He published widely on the diagnosis and effects of nutritional anaemias; this, together with his knowledge on thalassaemia made his expertise particularly relevant to the developing countries. His wide research interests also included the mechanisms of alcohol toxicity.

He had the unusual dual characteristics of being both a scholar and a good teacher. He introduced the BSc course in haematology at St Mary’s, and this was later adopted as the model for other BSc courses. He took a personal interest in the lives of both his postgraduate and undergraduate students and the annual lunch party hosted by him and his wife Priyanthi for his students was always very popular.
Sunitha had a special capacity to understand young people and was a mentor to many.

By representation on numerous medical school and university committee boards he endeavoured to improve outcomes for students and strove to further academic standards. Throughout this administrative contribution he remained true to his conscience and made decisions uninfluenced by political pressures.

It is equally important to pay tribute to Sunitha as a person - remembered by family, friends and colleagues as compassionate, considered and a true gentleman whose equanimity and select wit will be greatly missed but never forgotten. As in the poem by W.H. Davies, he took time to “stand and stare” which signified his gentle philosophy and informed his life’s work. He seized life and the opportunities provided to him until the very last.

He is survived and celebrated by his wife Priyanthi, daughters Rushika and Liat, son Nim, and two grandchildren. All three children were inspired by him to follow careers in medicine and biology.
(Sunitha Wickramasinghe, haematologist, was born on July 2, 1941. He died on June 28, 2009, aged 67.)

Dr. Sunil Liyanage, London

World authority on diseases affecting red blood cells

The following obituary was published by the Guardian newspaper of London on September 9, 2009.

“Sunitha Wickramasinghe, who has died aged 67, was an expert on red blood cell formation and the diseases that occur when the process goes wrong, such as rare forms of anaemia. He was professor of haematology at Imperial College London and St Mary's hospital, and, after he formally retired, was visiting professor at Oxford University.

“Sir David Weatherall, founder of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford, described Wickramasinghe as "an internationally respected figure in the ultrastructure of the bone marrow, particularly in inherited disorders of the red cell. He made very important contributions to our understanding of the patterns of defective red-cell maturation and ineffective formation in thalassaemia and related disorders.

"His meticulous and often highly innovative approaches to the electron microscopic examination of the marrow were seminal. If one ever had an unusual or completely novel patient with inherited anaemia, it was always to Sunitha that one turned for ultra-structural studies of the marrow."

“Wickramasinghe was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and educated at Royal College and Ceylon University. He initially wanted to be a zoologist but studied medicine instead: he qualified as a doctor in 1964. He then went to Cambridge University, funded by a Gulbenkian studentship, where he was awarded a PhD for research. From there he moved to Leeds University medical school, starting as clinical research fellow in 1969, and rising to senior lecturer. His main research focus was blood-cell formation in bone marrow, and he published his first book on the subject, Human Bone Marrow, in 1975.
“In 1978 he was appointed reader in haematology at St Mary's hospital medical school, in London, which became Imperial College medical school a year later, and he served as deputy dean for two years. "He built up the department," said Professor Barbara Bain, his successor, "and developed the diagnostic lab." In 2000, Imperial College was trying to consolidate its research to the Hammersmith hospital site and offered him voluntary redundancy. He retired as emeritus professor and took a position at Oxford University at what was by then the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine.

“While at St Mary's, he had established a BSc degree course on haematology, and his love of teaching meant he encouraged and inspired undergraduate and research students, many from Sri Lanka. He had time for people irrespective of their status, and his unassuming manner and astute clinical judgment endeared him to patients and colleagues alike. He collaborated with colleagues in the US, China, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Thailand and Sri Lanka. His awards included a Cambridge ScD (1984), and fellowships of the Institute of Biology (1982), Royal College of Pathologists (1986) and the Royal College of Physicians (1991).

“Famed internationally, he was a guest lecturer at Ferrara University, Italy, in the 1990s, and was made an honorary fellow of the Sri Lankan College of Haematologists (1999), having given an oration there four years earlier.

“A prolific researcher and writer, he published more than 200 research papers, mainly on abnormal red blood cell formation and the diseases this caused. In addition to writing Human Bone Marrow, he edited two textbooks on blood and bone marrow pathology, and co-wrote Lecture Notes on Haematology from the fifth edition (1991) through to the eighth (2008).

“Wickramasinghe was a keen photographer, and enjoyed travel, especially to archaeological sites, and wildlife. He was a gastronome, though his cooking was confined to paella and Jane Grigson's recipe for the puddings he made from the quinces he grew in his garden in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

“He came from a distinguished family: his father was the top Cambridge maths graduate of his year and left the Indian civil service for an academic career in Sri Lanka. His elder brother, Chandra, is professor of astrobiology at Cardiff University; his younger brother, Dayal, is professor of mathematics at the Australian National University, Canberra, and his youngest brother, Kumar, is professor of nanotechnology at the University of California at Irvine.

“He married Priyanthi Soummia Fernando in 1968. She survives him, along with their son and two daughters.”

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