ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34

He believed there was a place for everyone

Professor P. D. P. Gunatillake

I saw the obituary notice of Dr. P.D.P. Gunatillake in the Internet editions of Colombo newspapers of December 15 and 16, last year. I knew P.D.P. Gunatillake well. We were batchmates at university from June 1946 to March 1952. The last time I met him was in his office at the Ministry of Health, in 1978, when he was the Deputy Director of Health (Laboratory Services), in the Department of Health.

We entered the University of Ceylon in June 1946, on results of the University Entrance Examination held in December 1945. At that time, there was only one University in Ceylon, and it was in Colombo. The Medical Faculty was on Kynsey Road, Colombo 10, with the adjacent hospitals, while the Faculties of Arts, Science, and Oriental Studies were located on Thurstan Road, Colombo 7. There were no other faculties in 1946. To put it into context, it was at a time when Ceylon was a Crown Colony in the British Empire, and World War ll had ended only a short time earlier, in 1945.

Our studies involved one year in the First MB class in the Faculty of Science, after which we did five years of study in the Faculty of Medicine.

I entered University from a school in Jaffna. PDP and I completed our Final MBBS examination which was held in March 1952, having been successful in all the examinations in the first attempts.

At the time we were university students, the number of students in each batch was relatively small, and every student knew all students in his or her batch closely, as good friends, sharing a common goal, of being successful in all examinations in the shortest possible time. PDP was extremely friendly, pleasant, quiet, refined, and studious. He was tall, while most of the students in our batch were of average, or relatively short stature. This probably was the result of shortage of quality food, particularly in respect of protein, at the time of adolescent growth, as a result of World War ll from 1939. Our generation of students were all of average stature and height, and this can be seen in those from our batch who are still alive.

PDP’s height, therefore, made him prominent, and noticed by everyone, including our teachers. This was both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. He could never get lost in any crowd of students, and therefore had to be well behaved all the time. In clinical studies around a patient on a bed, he could afford to stand behind rows of other students and not miss anything demonstrated, as he could look over the heads of students in front of him, and get a “wide-angled view” of what was before him.

He maintained this attitude throughout his professional life as a doctor. He always had a balanced and generous “wide-angled view” of life, and never had any narrow prejudices. He was conscious that there was a place for everyone. He displayed this feature in dealing with all sorts of people throughout his life.

As a medical student, he travelled daily from his home (which I believe was in Kesbewa), to the Medical Faculty in Maradana, by bus. In those days, bus queues were long, and there was never any guarantee that one could get into the next bus to the destination intended. I would estimate that he spent at least two hours in the mornings, and another two hours in the evenings, on bus travel between his home, and place of study, every day. To PDP, this was nothing. He was happy, and he did not let his studies suffer as a result of at least four hours lost each day on travelling. The alternatives of getting into a University Students’ Hostel, or a private boarding house close to the medical school were totally unacceptable to him.

After graduation, we never worked in the same institutions ever again. Our careers took us in separate directions, and to entirely different destinations. But whenever we happened to run into each other, he always made an effort to reach out and renew fellowship, with a long friendly informal relaxed chat.

One such occasion when we met in Colombo was when he was supposed to be in UK as a postgraduate student at Manchester University, specializing in Microbiology. I asked him why he was in Colombo, when we were under the impression that he was studying in UK. He laughed and said that his microbiology research project for the Ph.D from Manchester University was based on work he decided to do in Sri Lanka. He had convinced the scientists at the Manchester University that the Ph.D that he worked for would be far more relevant to needs of Sri Lanka, and useful in his future role as a Microbiologist, if the research was done on native Sri Lankan microbes, an abundance of which were readily available in his home country. He winked and confirmed that it was nicer to work from home, than in faraway Manchester, and that it also allowed his supervising scientists from Manchester to visit and learn about Sri Lankan bacteria, in connection with important aspects of his research.

To PDP, this was great fun, and a big joke. I could not fathom why he did not enjoy his postgraduate study leave enjoying life in UK and Europe, as everyone else in similar circumstances would have done.

He never told me what his actual research study was, or the real explanation for his undertaking in Colombo, the scientific inquiry and investigations for his Ph.D from Manchester, or any details about his aims, plans or visions. Years later, I came to know from other sources that his special interest was CORYNEBACTERIUM DIPHTHERIAE , the bacteria that caused diphtheria.

At the time that he did his Ph.D in Manchester, vaccination to immunize children against diphtheria had been available for many years, and diphtheria had virtually disappeared in Britain, and most developed countries. But in Sri Lanka, diphtheria remained a reasonably common, very serious and dreaded childhood infection, with a high mortality. As a Bacteriologist needing samples of the bacteria causing diphtheria, for culturing, and research, Colombo provided a wealth of opportunities with new cases of diphtheria being diagnosed among children, almost every day. PDP spent most of the time awarded for his postgraduate studies, research and specialization abroad, acquiring prestigious British qualifications, doing most of his research work in Colombo.

He displayed unique genuine pioneering leadership in his unusual determination to make his work relevant and applicable to the Sri Lankan environment. He spotlighted the changing patterns, including epidemiology and other realities, between the developing world, and the industrialized countries with regard to diphtheria and its manifestations. His work on the bacteria causing diphtheria is often quoted in international scientific literature.

I left Sri Lanka in March 1981, and have not visited Sri Lanka after that. In July 2002, I saw the group photograph taken in Colombo, of those attending the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of their successfully acquiring the MBBS in Colombo in 1952.

I was unable to attend that big event in Colombo. In that group photograph, I noticed that P.D.P. Gunatillake was not smiling, and he looked slightly expressionless, sad and serious. On inquiry from my batchmates, I was told that he was quite unwell with Parkinson’s disease, but had yet attended the celebration, wanting to join in making that happy event a great success.

I was not in Sri Lanka when he took up the position of Professor of Microbiology at the North Colombo Medical College at Ragama, in 1983, a post that he held for 11 years. I also came to know that he was on the World Health Organization’s Expert Advisory Panel on Laboratory Services, and that he had made significant contribution as a teacher and examiner in Microbiology, and in the training of Medical Laboratory Technologists in the country. He was a senior founder member of the Sri Lanka College of Microbiologists.

I am really proud to have been his classmate as a medical student.

By Victor Ariyaratnam Benjamin

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.