Professor O.E.R Abhayaratne – A Tribute
By Dr Nihal D Amarasekara
Prof. Osmund Edwin Randolph Abhayaratne had his early education at Royal College Colombo. After an outstanding career at the Ceylon Medical College he received the diploma of Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery. He began his first job in the Health Service in 1933. After holding several key posts in Public Health and Preventive Medicine he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh for postgraduate training
He later obtained the Master’s Degree in Public Health at Harvard University with First Class Honours. In his long and illustrious career, he won many prestigious National and International awards. In Sri Lanka he held the position of President of several Learned Societies and Associations including the Sri Lanka Medical Association. He was called upon to act for the Vice Chancellor on numerous occasions for Sir Ivor Jennings and for Sir Nicholas Attygalla. The Prof made a significant personal contribution to his commitment to education by being an active member of the Governing Boards of several prominent schools in Colombo and Kandy.
The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ is often attributed to the Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, circa 1500. Its wisdom wasn’t acknowledged until we were well into the 20th century. In 1949, Dr O.E.R Abhayaratne was appointed the first Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Ceylon. Being a man of outstanding ability and intellect, they couldn’t have chosen better. He was at the forefront of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at a momentous time when we were developing and expanding our Health Service. With his devotion to Preventive Medicine, he kept his speciality in the spotlight publishing scientific papers and review articles. He was hugely influential in the shaping and development of the Public Health Services in Ceylon. He became the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1953 and remained so until his retirement in 1967. The Prof has been notably responsible for the establishment and recognition of the second Medical School in Peradeniya. Away from the bright lights of academia, he was the Vice President of the Sinhalese Sports Club.
The Faculty of Medicine had its fill of eccentric, colourful and prickly characters. There were a plethora of high-profile academics with huge egos. The political milieu of the institution was a veritable minefield. By his dignified personality, charm and good humour Prof Abhayaratne helped to create stability and a convivial atmosphere in the organisation. He was the voice of reason and highly regarded and considered as an approachable colleague. His opinion was much valued. His authoritative yet gentle manner instilled confidence and hope. Many anecdotes abound of his helpful kindness and generosity to young lecturers finding their feet in the faculty. The genial Prof was a tremendously wise and perceptive colleague, able to identify deficiencies and deal with them appropriately.
My first encounter with Prof Abhayaratne was not a happy one. It was at a viva voce examination, prior to entry into the faculty of medicine. This was held at the austere Senate House of the University on Reid Avenue. Half a dozen wizened old men with staring eyes were seated round a shiny table. They fired volleys of questions that unnerved me. I felt like a gazelle cornered by huntsmen. Then fate smiled on me. The Prof realised my discomfiture. He changed the ferocity of my ordeal with a friendly smile and questions about philately and the history of postage stamps. I have remembered his kindness to this day that ended well in a lifelong career in medicine!!
Many students from my era will remember fondly the great man arriving every morning in his chauffeur-driven black Mercedes and getting off at the Kynsey Road entrance to the faculty. He was no stranger to the finer things in life. In a good mood, we often saw him walking the corridors of power whistling a happy tune. It was a morning ritual for Prof O.E.R Abhayaratne and the Medical Officer Dr E.H.C Alles to arrive at the canteen for a tea and a fag. Dressed in his dapper beige suit there was an air of sophistication although it had lost its creases aeons ago. They enjoyed a joke and a smoke. I do not know if it was through fear or respect, we just avoided eye contact with them.
The Dean, with his silver hair and large frame was naturally imposing. He filled any room he entered bringing authority and gravitas to his position as the Dean of the faculty. The Prof. had a distinctive gruff and husky voice. He occasionally barked commands that would have frightened the boldest. But then again with his kind avuncular manner he acquired a cult status in the institution that endeared him to the students. They feared and respected him in equal measure. Beneath that intimidating and fearsome exterior was a kind and considerate man. He led by the force of his personality. During those glorious years of the 1960’s his character and easy-going style were imprinted on the life and workings of that great institution.
Teaching was his life and he gave his all to his students. Professor Abhayaratne was an outstanding teacher and an altruistic mentor with a passionate interest in medical education. The Prof had a unique talent to teach. His Public Health lectures were light entertainment in memorable English prose laced with rhyming poetry. Malarial mosquitoes bred in tins and cans and pots and pans. The corrugated tin roofs were hot during hot weather, cold during cold weather and noisy during rainy weather. His cyclostyled notes (including all his jokes) were available for Rs.5.00 courtesy of the ‘Marker’ in the Men’s Common Room. His superb lectures from sewage disposal to water treatment and squatting plates to the control of communicable diseases were delivered with such elegance they entered our memories and stayed there.
The Professor loved the century-old heritage and the unbroken traditions of the Ceylon Medical College, with all its imperfections!! He wanted students to enjoy their undergraduate years and took great delight in giving his unstinting support to a multitude of events. All the student events of the Faculty were organised by the Medical Students’ Union (MSU). As I heard from a former president of the MSU the Prof’s moral and financial support for the Union was legendary. The MSU organised several evening parties in the Men’s Common Room. This broke the monotony of the hard grind of medical education. There were more drinks than food. The music was provided by our own talented musicians. We sang and danced and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Occasionally on those evening we often saw the lone figure of the Prof standing by the canteen door nearest to the lobby, perhaps after a late evening meeting. He had that familiar stance as he stood at ease with both hands on his hips and his coat open widely. He was hearing the limericks and the rugby songs he had heard many times before. It was like a father seeing his children at play. We saw his smile of approval as he departed. Held at the University at Reid Avenue the Annual Block Concert took pride of place. The Prof was given a seat in the front row, with the great and the good. His welcome presence at the concert never subdued the effusive spirit of the artistes nor their performances. He found it equally hard to maintain a straight face as wave upon wave of youthful antics with sexual overtones hit the deck. It must be said some of the provocative dancing and the racy dialogue would have made a sailor blush!!
As medical students in the 1960’s we lived in an interesting and exciting bohemian whirl.
Prof. Abhayaratne was affectionately known as ‘Pachaya’. It is a term of endearment in Sinhala for a person who is known for being economical with the truth. Perhaps he earned this fanciful sobriquet. This was aptly demonstrated during the cross-examination and interrogations we had with the Prof in the aftermath of the chaotic Law-Medical match. He announced that every photograph taken will be closely scrutinised with a photo-electron-microscope to identify every offender. We feared the worst. It was much later we got to know that no such instrument ever existed.
Above all he was a committed family man. Without his ever-supportive wife, May, he would not have been able to contribute so much time to healthcare and to academic life. He was the first to recognise this. They had two daughters and a son. The youngest, Rohini, was in my year in medical school. Despite her privileged position she had no airs and graces and remained one of us.
Prof Abhayaratne was the Dean of the Faculty at a time of tremendous political change and anxious uncertainty. He steered the ship into safety through stormy seas and retired in 1967. Although he richly deserved a long retirement, he passed away suddenly in 1969 of a heart attack. The Professor will be remembered for his personal qualities of kindness, integrity, warmth and humanity. Now I realise the sheer scale of his vision and his professionalism. Many of us have been greatly enriched by having known him and being his students. Our thanks go to one of the greats of our time and one of the finest to walk the corridors of the faculty. He truly was a credit to our profession. He left the world a better place and left the faculty of medicine up there with the finest institutions in the world. We will forever keep him in grateful memory.
He was sustained by an unflinching Christian faith that was central to his life. A regular church-goer, the Prof was the Warden of St Michael’s Church Polwatte for 7 years.
May his dear Soul Rest in Peace.