The iconic “Old Anatomy Block” – the end is nigh!!
By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
In the words of the Greek Physician Hippocrates :
“Ars longa vita brevis” (learning the craft takes time and life is short).
How very true!!
For the readers who are unaware of the old Anatomy Block it is the large and impressive grey colonial building in Francis Place. It lies behind the main premises of the Faculty of Medicine Colombo at Kynsey Road. This majestic building with tall gothic columns and ornate carvings stand as a sentinel paying homage to Dr Albert J Chalmers, the Registrar of the Ceylon Medical College from 1901-12. He helped to design and construct this fine edifice. The Anatomy Block was opened on the 3rd of November 1913 by the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Chalmers. The architecture could be described as Edwardian Baroque style. Despite its years and the grisly goings on behind its closed doors, the elegant facade retains its colonial personality and charm. The Old Anatomy Block is a fine tribute to the many who learnt the trade here and have proceeded to serve humanity, providing medical care all around the world.
My epic journey in medical education began at the tail end of 1962. I remember most vividly, as if it were yesterday, entering through the portals of that great grey building in Francis Place. Flushed with excitement, the aura and the occasion simply took my breath away. It inspired a lifelong professional career. This was affectionately called the “Block”. It is the oldest building in the Faculty of Medicine and student life began right here. I still recall so graphically being in a cavernous hall with rows of cadavers laid on marble slabs. It just seemed like the abode of the Grim Reaper!! We soon got accustomed to the pungent smell of the place which never left our noses. Within its concrete walls we dissected those human bodies, rather dispassionately. Tearing a body of a real person apart from head to toe despite its immersion in formalin still makes me shudder. Our youthful enthusiasm and our search for knowledge gave us some protection. As I write I’m amazed we could face this ordeal day after day for two long years. I couldn’t face that same task with that same detachment now. The life and times in that great institution have now entered the folklore of the Faculty of Medicine Colombo. We now remember our teachers and the friends who shared those years with great nostalgia.
While in the “Block” we learnt anatomy well and in such great detail. We were expected to know the minutiae and the small print. The regular tests we had in the form of weekly ‘signatures’ and termly ‘revisal’ generated a toxic culture. It must be said we were forced to learn the subject completely and thoroughly. As a practicing Diagnostic Radiologist this knowledge was essential to me for which I will remain forever grateful.
Away from the books, study and examinations, memories of the “Block” are many. Even in that challenging environment our youthful spirit never deserted us. They began with the infamous fresher’s rag. Then came the Law-Medical match followed by the Block Concert and the Block Night. These events are intricately woven into the fabric of life in the Block and remain as treasured memories for many of us. Although these events occurred away from the iconic building, but they reflect those memorable years spent in that great institution.
Recently there was an email riding the ether that the Old Anatomy Block was to be demolished. I was surprised and dismayed to lose such an iconic building of our time. Prof. Sanath Lamabadusuriya promptly enquired from the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine who reassured him that the “Block” will not be demolished but will be restored to house the Faculty Museum and a Centre for Research, Development and Innovation. I am confident he will do whatever is necessary to preserve its historical content. This iconic monument to medical education has a long and distinguished history. I am so pleased it will not be reduced to clouds of dust and a pile of rubble.
The building has served us well for over a century. In that time much has changed in the teaching of anatomy. The difficulties in getting cadavers and its high financial cost have significantly contributed to the development of alternative teaching techniques. Web-based medical technology has resulted in the development of virtual dissection programs. These have been found to be a cost-effective way of teaching anatomy. They are now preferred to cadaveric dissection. The modern techniques do away with some of the emotional and ethical concerns. The debate to dissect or not to dissect still rages on. The teaching of anatomy has changed. Hence, I do understand the issues which may have influenced the Dean and the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo to take a stand.
A centenary celebration was held for the Old Anatomy Block in 2013. It was wonderful to read through the souvenir and acknowledge the deep affection the former students have for this great institution. With the passage of years the sun and the rain and the atmospheric pollution have affected the structure of the building. A crack has appeared in a wall and some damage to the wooden floor has been found. It is heartening to know that the architectural conservation division of the department of archaeology has been consulted.
To conserve our medical history, it is important to broaden the discussion. The General Hospital in Colombo now the National Hospital was established in 1864. The associated Medical School was founded in 1870. Both these institutions have old buildings that may not be fit for purpose anymore. Some may have fallen into disrepair from neglect, a lack of funds, and the weather. I hope there is greater consultation before sending in the bull dozers and excavators for demolition. It is wonderful to see the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital built in 1903 still being used and kept in good repair.
We as a country have done tremendously well to preserve our ancient heritage and archaeological remains. But the preservation of our more recent history appears to be less secure. I am unaware of the existence of a listing of historical buildings or a National Register for this purpose. Hence it is incumbent on the general public and the interested individuals to gather support, cajole, harass and make a noise about preserving our past.
“Heritage building” includes any building which requires conservation and preservation for historical, architectural or cultural purpose.
One way of acknowledging our history is by preserving historic buildings and structures.
Historic building preservation helps to remember a place or an institution and its interesting past. These old buildings are visual reminders of an area’s cultural heritage and the people that once played a key role in being part of it. Historical buildings are best adapted for reuse as architects are looking at ways to make these buildings more sustainable.
If we didn’t undertake historical building preservation, there would be nothing left of our history in architectural terms. Demolishing an old building could mean an important part of our history is gone forever. Many of the old buildings are a treasure trove in architectural terms that tell us something important about our historical past.
I do accept that in Sri Lanka we must do what is feasible and appropriate for our country. It is however important to pick up from other countries how they deal with the common issues. In London space is precious and is at a premium. St Thomas’ hospital was established in 1100, Guys Hospital in 1720 and King’s College Hospital in 1840. All those hospitals have had many face lifts and extensions to accommodate new technology and more patients. The Medical Schools are closely connected to those hospitals. Whenever possible they have preserved the original façade of the old red brick buildings which have been included in the National Heritage List to be preserved for posterity. I wish we can preserve the façade of that iconic Anatomy Block and the other parts of historical interest like the old anatomy lecture hall built like a Greek style amphitheatre.
I am immensely grateful to Prof. Sanath Lamabadusuriya who brought this to my attention. We are fortunate to have a person of his calibre and wisdom. He is the current President of Colombo Medical School Alumni Association and is greatly respected by all. We are so pleased Sanath will take an interest in the progress of this process of refurbishment and restoration. I can rest assured he will deal with this project thoughtfully and with sensitivity.
The Golden era of anatomy in the Medical Faculty comes to an end as the Old Anatomy Block gives up being a place for human cadaveric dissections. It has served us well for over a hundred years. The building will stand as a tribute to the learned Professors and Lecturers who walked those hallowed precincts and taught anatomy to generations of students. Their photos adorn the walls of the main hallway. Some had tempers that would terrify even the boldest. Their voices must still swirl in the ether of that great institution. Meanwhile, if you are ever in the neighbourhood, do wander around. That’s the closest you’ll ever get to soak up the atmosphere of an era that will soon disappear into oblivion.