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Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Tribute to a Legendary Teacher – Prof. G.H Cooray OBE, MD., FRCPath.,FRCP

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

Prof. G.H. Cooray

Gerald Henry Cooray was born in Panadura in 1908 where his father was a Government Medical Officer. After a brilliant school career at Royal College Colombo the young GH Cooray proceeded to Kings College London for his medical studies. After his MB.BS in 1933 he returned to Ceylon to join the health service.  His career breakthrough came in 1946 when he was appointed as a Lecturer in Pathology in the University of Colombo. Dr Cooray’s thesis for the MD(London) in 1946 won him the coveted Gold Medal. He was destined and fully equipped for greatness.  The young Dr Cooray was appointed to the prestigious position  of Professor of Pathology in 1953.  It was his desire, through the training of doctors, to help to create a fine health service in the country. The Prof played a huge part in the development of the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo.  With his inspired leadership  and infectious enthusiasm  he could hardly have made a better start when he modernized and revolutionized his department.

In the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo and in Ceylon he was the Voice of Pathology. His educational contribution was immense. As a lecturer, his laid back but precise delivery was matchless.  He spoke perfect English, taught us diligently and to the best of his ability. I can still recall in great detail the first time I sat in the lecture theatre to listen to Prof Cooray.  His masterly introduction to the pathology of inflammation has remained with me ever since.  Those classical signs of inflammation, Rubor, Calor, Tumor, Dolor and  Functio laesa have now been permanently imprinted in my brain. The Prof, with his formidable intellect, had this remarkable ability to deliver facts in a logical sequence and transport his audience to the world of pathology. After a career in medicine spanning 40 years I can say, unequivocally, he is the finest teacher I have ever had. His success as a teacher earned him a huge following of many generations of grateful students.

Although he sometimes appeared a little brusque and retiring, his humanity was never far beneath the surface. He was  kind and respected human dignity.  The Prof was a fair examiner as he was a fine teacher. He had the remarkable ability to put the students at ease during the stressful viva voce examinations.  At the same time he would not tolerate nonsense from the students. The Prof , who was stockily built, had a commanding presence and earned the respect of everyone whom he taught. His students still remember him as a caring teacher. He had a rather dry sense of humour. I remember his joke about dark skinned people being born to blush unseen. This he blurted out year after year for so many years that now it has entered the folklore of the institution.

The depth and breadth of Prof Cooray’s scientific contributions are quite remarkable. He had an immense national and international reputation. He was President of the Ceylon Medical Association, President of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the Ceylon Cancer Society. The Prof. served on many international committees and as a member of WHO Expert Advisory Panels on Cancer Diagnosis and Control.  He made a significant contribution to the study of Pathology of Tumours and achieved a considerable reputation internationally. The Prof was a gifted and prodigious researcher.  He wrote fluently and easily and published well over a hundred papers. Until the very end he remained a prolific writer and contributor to scientific journals and publications. He was an examiner at the Primary FRCS held in Colombo. It was said by his fellow examiners “ No candidate could have been disturbed in his presence”. He fitted in well with the British Medical scene and formed lasting friendships with several of his colleagues and peers. In the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons he was described as “a gentle civilized man”. For his services to the Profession he was awarded The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Professor Daphne Attygalle worked with Prof Cooray for many years as his deputy. She succeeded Prof Cooray in the Chair and paid this handsome tribute to her colleague and friend: Professor Cooray was a serious man, the personification of everything that was correct. A man of integrity, outspoken, truthful and honourable, he was deeply religious and devoted a good part of his time to Buddhist activities. He excelled as a teacher and his lectures were always eagerly awaited by students and staff. In spite of his forthright ways, he was liked by all. Extremely fair in all his actions he never failed to tell his juniors what he thought about them, so that they had ample opportunity to mend their ways. He was essentially a family man and derived a great deal of happiness from his grandchildren.

He married in 1937 and had a son and 2 daughters. The son became a doctor and was a year senior to me in the faculty.  The Prof had several grandchildren whom he adored.

It was with great sadness we learnt of his final illness which he endured with much courage and fortitude. Buddhism helped him enormously right to the end.  Prof. Gerald Henry Cooray passed away in 1970 at the age of 62.

He  was a shining light from that golden era of medical educationists in Ceylon. Prof Cooray was, quite simply, one of the most outstanding academic Pathologist of his time. We are grateful for his commitment to teaching and his contribution to the Faculty of Medicine. He will always remain as one of the finest teachers to walk the corridors of that great institution.

His legend lives on.

May he find the Ultimate Bliss of Nirvana

Blog administrator's note: This article appeared in the souvenir published to mark the 4th CoMSAA Reunion and Academic Sessions held at Tangerine Beach Hotel, Kalutara on 13 September 2015.


  1. A fitting tribute by ND to great man, a great teacher, a great doctor, a great father and grandfather. He had what we call "presence". He has principles and lived by them. I too regard him as one of my finest teachers and shall always remember him with a deep sense of gratitude.

  2. Mahen
    Thank you. He had so much more to give this world when he died so young at 62 from what I understood was chronic renal failure. He had no favourites and treated everyone and every situation on its merits. I feel greatly privileged to have been his student.

  3. I heard some time ago about his renal failure. Apparently (subject to confirmation by some who knows the truth), he was offered a renal transplant or may be renal dialysis, I am not sure, and he refused saying that he must go as he was born and when the time comes he is ready to depart gracefully.

  4. Mahen
    He always knew what he wanted. All teachers are the same they feel they know best. Transplant or dialysis at the time perhaps was much more hazardous than now. He was a wise man.
    My radiology teacher at UCH developed idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and was offered a lung transplant 10 years ago. He refused and passed away age 62 or thereabouts. He was a wise man too.

  5. I fully agree with all what ND had written.
    One of Professor Cooray's daughters married Dr. DUR.Gunawardene who retired as a physician from Colombo South Hospital. Their son Rohan Gunawardene is a consultant in cardiac electrophysiology at NHSL,Colombo
    On a lighter note I have to be thankful to Professor Cooray for another reason . In 1969 a small advertisement appeared in the "Daily News" advertising Senior Lecturer/Lecturer posts in Pathology and Paediatrics at the Colombo Medical Faculty when I was working as a post-intern at Chest Hospital Welisara. As I was interested in teaching I applied for both posts. I was called for both interviews and the Pathology interview preceded the Paediatrics interview. At the Pathology interview Professor Cooray discouraged me from joining his department advising me that my academic record was more suitable for a clinical department. Then I told him that I had applied for Paediatrics as well. He did not select me because he really wanted a Senior Lecturer and Dr. Chula Seneviratne was selected. Later I went for the Paediatrics interview and was selected. So, I really have to be thankful to Professor Cooray for not selecting me as otherwise I would have been bored stiff working as a Pathologist! (with due apologies to pathologists including my sister)

    Sanath P. Lamabadusuriya