Search This Blog

Friday, February 19, 2016

By far the greatest medical personality I knew

(Republished - This was first published in the Sunday Times of 10 January 2010)
Dr. P.R. Anthonis - A personal tribute
I came to know Dr. P.R. Anthonis when I was a medical student in the mid-sixties. Although an extremely busy surgeon, he always found the time to teach us. Later in 1967 I was his intern medical officer for six months. The period of internship was hectic and we were kept extremely busy. He gave a lot of responsibility to the house officers who responded to the hilt. There were many VIPs in the paying wards but Dr. Anthonis gave the same attention to the patients in the non-paying wards as well. During this period it became evident to me that he was an energetic and technically competent surgeon and teacher/tutor who claimed that work “refreshed” him. This was perhaps the secret of his longevity.

Once an attendant came to him and asked him for a few hundred rupees on the grounds that his mother had died. I was bemused when Dr. Anthonis gave him half the money and asked him to keep it. I asked him whether he believed the attendant’s story and his reply was that he did not, but to have said that his mother had died perhaps indicated a dire need of the money and more-over, the mother cannot die twice! Such was his wisdom in mundane matters.

On another occasion I was assisting him in the operating theatre, when a doctor came from the adjoining theatre and whispered something in his ear. He immediately went to the next theatre and returned after about 10 minutes. He did not tell us why he was called and carried on with the surgery. When I went to lunch, I met the surgical registrar who was in the next theatre. He told me that his “boss” (a well known budding surgeon) was performing a cholecystectomy (removal of the gall bladder) and had damaged an artery which resulted in the abdominal cavity rapidly filling with blood.
The young surgeon had panicked when he could not locate the bleeding point in the pool of blood and had called for assistance. Dr. Anthonis had come over, quite calmly sucked out the blood from the abdominal cavity, located the bleeding point in the hepatic artery and sutured it. His humility and greatness were manifest in that he kept it to himself, without embarrassing his junior colleague. “Never kick a fallen dog!!” was one of his mottos. I have watched him single handedly place fledgling surgeons on a sound footing.

The HOPE ship was docked in the Colombo Port during this time, and the American surgeons who came over to assist Dr. Anthonis were astonished by his operative skills. His versatility was testified to by his ability to perform surgery on the gall bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, spleen, kidneys, adrenals, urinary bladder, prostate bowel, thyroid gland etc., with great dexterity.

An overawed American surgeon told me that in their country, surgeons usually specialize only in one organ. Many newly returned surgeons followed his ward rounds and came in to operate on a side table whilst Dr.Anthonis performed major operations on the centre table. We the juniors watched newly qualified surgeons gain their experience thus, and Dr. Anthonis’s unit was never short of clinical material. Furthermore, documenting all the surgical work pictorially and cataloging each and every patient’s details was a unique trait in this brilliant surgeon's professional life.

On Thursday afternoons, a wide variety of short eats was made available outside operating theatre C. Young doctors and medical students not working with him also used to come along to enjoy and savour the spread!

Dr. Anthonis was the patron of the medical students Buddhist Hostel, Jeevaka, for many years. I am personally aware that he donated furniture etc., when the need arose. He has assisted numerous medical students with books, stethoscopes and finances.

His intellectual skills were all embracing. Before he visited a tourist/historic resort, he would read about the place and gain knowledge; during such visits he would educate the fellow tourists including the tourist guide!!

His influence was considerable, not only in the surgical sphere but also in historical scholarship. He was a storehouse of knowledge as to what happened - when, where and why. More recently when a younger colleague was researching to write a book about the history of paediatrics in Sri Lanka, I took her along to meet Dr. Anthonis. After listening to her, he meticulously selected many invaluable articles from ancient documents in his vast collection, which ultimately enriched the book she wrote. We watched in amazement as he remembered exactly where the information was stored and more importantly, from which bookshelf it could be retrieved! He was equipped with this ability of retrieval of data sans computers, at the ripe age of 97 years.

Meticulous cataloging by him, demonstrated that history was intellectually more strenuous than merely a good memory. Dr. Anthonis was a unique person, extremely skilful in his specialty, very knowledgeable about diverse topics, sober in his habits, deeply religious and extremely humble. Undoubtedly he is one of the most notable alumni of the Colombo Medical School. He rivalled all others of his time in distinction and vigour.

He is by far the greatest medical personality that I have come across in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. After my internship, although I specialized in paediatrics, we remained in constant touch and my wife and our offspring also had the privilege of being enriched by his company at many wonderful dinner parties. I participated in his retirement function in 1971, and 37 years later, I was extremely pleased and filled with emotion when my former teacher, Dr. Anthonis attended my retirement function and unveiled my portrait at Lady Ridgeway Hospital. It was unfortunate that he failed to reach his one hundredth year by a mere 35 days, to which he was looking forward to with much enthusiasm.
However, his was a life well lived in the fullest sense. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana, via the shortest route through Sansara.

Prof. Sanath P. Lamabadusuriya, MBE, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, University of Colombo.


  1. A great tribute beautifully written by person who knew PR Anthonis well. He was indeed one the greats amongst our brilliant and dedicated clinical teachers. I feel immensely proud to be one of his students.

  2. I remember reading this interesting tribute when it was first published in the Sunday Times. It was even more interesting when I read it a second time before posting it on our batch blog.

    Unlike Sanath, I had very little contact with the great man. I remember the time that I clerked under him at a time when the General Hospital was out of bounds to medical students
    (other than those sitting the exam). Our small group had to go to his residence at Turret Road (now Dharmapala Mawatha) and from there we traveled in his vehicle to the GHC on "Operating Days" where some of us had to assist him.

    A more personal encounter was when my wife and I attended the homecoming of a daughter of Sinha and Himani Basnayake which was held at the Thurstan Road residence of Mr. Percy Gunasena (Percy and Himani were children of the well known publisher, printer and bookseller M.D. Gunasena). Dr. Anthonis who was a close relative of the Gunasena family had a long chat with me on that occasion. That was the only time he addressed me as "Dr. Abeyagunawardene"!

    The last occasion that I met him was when I accepted an award from Dr. Anthonis at a public function where he was the Chief Guest. Any reader of my Memoirs would see in what esteem we held our late teacher because among the few photographs that I have included in the book is one showing acceptance of this award.

  3. Just a quick note from Sydney. Lama's article is superb and captures the essence of a great a Surgeon and unique character. I have attended ward classes under him and also heard lectures from him and one thing engraved in my mind is how he illustrated his talks on the blackboard using chalk on both hands as he was so ambidextrous.

  4. Thank you Sanath for this lovely tribute. Dr. Anthonis was truly one of the great surgeon/teachers, and those who worked closely with him, like you, were very fortunate. I only had the privilege of listening to his lectures. Mahen, I don't remember his ambidextrous skills, but I bet that is why he was such a skillful surgeon. I was interested in the fact that he documented his operations with photographs etc. Does anyone know whether they were ever published? Or are they available somewhere for people interested in the history of medicine. Surgical techniques have changed, but I am sure there are people who might benefit from studying his records. When one of my brothers was about 11, Dr. A performed an appendectomy on him and presented my brother with the appendix in a formalin jar. By brother proudly displayed this at a Science Exhibition at St. Thomas' College! I think he kept it for a long time, until my mother finally threw it out! Many years later my 80+ year old uncle went to Dr. A, who was approaching 90 at the time, for the same operation. When I questioned my uncle as to why he didn't go to a younger surgeon, he said "Dr. Anthonis is the best!"

  5. Dear ND, Lucky Mahen and Srianee,
    Thank you very much for your inputs. PRA used to have cards to document his surgery. We had to write up a new card for each operation, Then he used to draw a diagram on the card to illustrate his surgery. Years later he used to pull out these cards and I could recognise my hand writing on some of these. I remeMber a Burgher technician who was in the Forensic Department of our Faculty who used to take photographs in the theater. I am not sure what has happened to these records. If I meet his son Lal, I will ask him.

  6. Here I digress as I usually do. Viewers may be familiar with some of the names mentioned here.

    The Burgher gentleman that Sanath refers to is Mr. Webster who was a technician in the Forensic Dept. during Prof. HVJ Fernando's time. He was tall, had a "bumby" walk, wore glasses and owned a green Bug Fiat. He was well known because his name is mentioned in Sydney Smith's "Mostly Murder" in the chapter on the famous Sathasivam case. He was a good photographer and specialised in "superimposition" where that skill helped in solving many murder cases in Ceylon.

    I didn't know Mr. Melder personally at that time but I got to know his family years later. His wife died at the age of 93 recently having lived in her Attidiya lakefront home for many years and where I used to visit the old lady. Mr and Mrs Webster had a daughter by the name of Rosemarie who is an Arts graduate of the Peradeniya University. He married my classmate at Ananda and close friend the late Mike (Mahipala) Udabage who lived in Sydney, Australia since the early seventies. He acquired his nickname "Mike" during the time he was in the US in 1957, after winning the NY Herald Tribune essay competition. Among past winners of this award were Jayantha Dhanapala (Trinity), Gemunu and Tissa Fernando (of Royal and sons of Professor PB Fernando), Priyalal Kurukulasuriya (another Anandian and the late Bunty's brother).

  7. I propose that you (Lucky and Sanath) and anyone else who is interested try to locate these records and do something with them - publish them in some format. My brother, who had his appendix removed by Dr. PRA, was a classmate of Lal Anthonis. Perhaps that is why his appendix was not thrown in the trash! I will find out if they are still in touch.
    Lucky, I am amazed at your knowledge of who's who in Sri Lanka!

  8. Thank you Lucky for recalling Webster's name. Gemunu Fernando was my classmate at RC and I know Priyalal quite well because we are family friends.Unfortunately Gemunu passed away few years ago.

  9. Thank you Lucky for recalling Webster's name. Gemunu Fernando was my classmate at RC and I know Priyalal quite well because we are family friends.Unfortunately Gemunu passed away few years ago.

  10. I am really happy to read this tribute article with so much information new to me about this great teacher. We who had the chance to hear him, see him and work with him have to be truly proud. The one thing I remember him for is his simplicity and human qualities.

  11. Yes Zita, he was a humanitarian as well as a great surgeon. You may all enjoy this story below sent by my brother in response to my asking whether he is in touch with Lal Anthonis. About 8 years after my brother had his appendix removed by Dr. A, he was sent to Cranwell (RAF College) by the Sri Lanka Air Force and tore his medial meniscus while on a training mission. Here's what he wrote:
    "Just an anecdote on Dr Anthonis.
    When I was in hospital in Cranwell for my knee operation (my Flying Knee, as I call it!), the RAF doctors saw my appendix scar and asked who did this operation? This is a 'Hollywood Scar!'
    They were highly impressed by the almost invisible scar."

  12. Dear Lucky,ND, Mahendra,Zita and Srianee,
    All your comments amply justify the title I have used for my appreciation about PRA