He was many things all rolled into one

Prof. Susirith Mendis will deliver the 22nd Professor K.N. Seneviratne Memorial Oration on "Conflict of Interest: The relationship between industry and science", at the auditorium of the Faculty of Medicine, Kynsey Road, Colombo 8 on Friday, November 27 at 6.30 p.m.

Kirthi Nissanka Seneviratne was born on November 22, 1929. Were he still with us, he would have reached his 80th birthday this year. But that was not to be. He died, prematurely, on August 10, 1986, succumbing to a massive heart attack at the age of 56.

K.N.S. was a doctor, physiologist, scientist, scholar, educationist, administrator (national and international) volunteer army captain and university don - and tobacco addict - all rolled into one. He had won the Arunachchalam Prize for General Knowledge at Royal College in 1946 and 1947).


K.N.S., was the second of the three children of Dr. Robert and Laura Seneviratne. Having qualified as a doctor in the Ceylon Medical College, Dr. Robert Seneviratne went to Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland where he became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Edinburgh. Years later his son K.N.S. was also to tread the same path to Edinburgh where he acquired not only a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh, but also a charming, highly educated and accomplished Scottish lass called Alison Alexander as his life's partner. She was the daughter of the Senior Physician in the Teaching Hospital of the Edinburgh Medical School.

A brilliant student, K.N.S. was an alumnus of Royal College Colombo, University of Ceylon and the University of Edinburgh. At Edinburgh, his Ph.D supervisor was Professor David Whitteridge FRS, who was at that time, the last surviving direct pupil of the famous Oxford Professor of Physiology, Nobel laureate and Neurophysiologist, Sir Charles Sherrington OM. Thus KNS had an impeccable academic pedigree.

Family pedigree

No less impressive was the family pedigree of K.N.S. His younger brother Nihal Seneviratne graduated in law from the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya in its glory days when the world famous authority on constitutional law, Sir Ivor Jennings was the Vice Chancellor. Nihal was taught constitutional law by Sir Ivor. After graduation, for many years Nihal Seneviratne was Clerk of the House of Represent-atives. K.N.S. was a superb lecturer who taught abstruse neurophysiology without a scrap of paper. Students hero - worshipped him.

K.N.S. had a delightful humour. He never minded his nickname "Bull". During his years at Royal College in Colombo, there were two Seneviratnes in class, one clever and the other not so clever. Those were the days when well-meaning, dedicated teachers thought nothing of verbally abusing children in what they believed to be the children's best interests. Irritated by a foolish answer given by the not so clever Seneviratne, one such old fashioned teacher had called him "cow". Ever thereafter, by rigorous schoolboy logic, the other (clever) Seneviratne became Bull. The nickname stuck and KNS rejoiced in it.

Professional career

K.N.S. was a world class neurophysiologist i.e. a scientist who specializes in the study of the brain and nerves. He joined the Department of Physiology of the Colombo Medical School as a Demonstrator in 1957 and ended up as Professor of Physiology before he was 40. He was specially chosen by the government to establish the Institute of Postgraduate Medicine in 1974. It transformed itself into the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. (PGIM). This was perhaps his most significant and lasting contribution to medical education in our country. In 1981, he joined the WHO as a Regional Adviser and worked enthusiastically until his sudden death in 1986.

The Orator

This year's Orator Professor Susirith Mendis (MBBS. Ph.D) is currently the Vice Chancellor and Professor of Physiology in the University of Ruhuna. A scholar with wide interests, he has written extensively on ethics in general and medical ethics in particular.

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