Mul­ti­fac­eted works of fa­ther of Sri Lanka’s post-grad­u­ate medic­i­nal stud­ies

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - TRIBUTE -

To be­gin at the very be­gin­ning, Don Robert Senevi­ratne, qual­i­fied as a doc­tor in the Cey­lon Med­i­cal Col­lege in 1887, mar­ried Laura Gu­nawar­dene and raised three chil­dren -- Iran­gani, Keerthi Nis­sanka and Ni­hal.

Iran­gani mar­ried Engi­neer Athuko­rala, nur­tured chil­dren, in­clud­ing a first class engi­neer who spe­cialised in Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence. Keerthi Nis­sanka blos­somed into the most distin­guished phys­i­ol­o­gist Sri Lanka has pro­duced up to date. Ni­hal grad­u­ated in law and func­tioned for many years as the il­lus­tri­ous Clerk of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (i.e. the par­lia­ment).

In an era when even broth­ers and sis­ters are prone to com­pete fiercely, Iran­gani, Keerthi Nis­sanka and Ni­hal were model si­b­lings. Through the mu­nif­i­cence of the fam­ily, es­pe­cially ami­able Ni­hal Senevi­ratne, the Phys­i­o­log­i­cal So­ci­ety has been able to cel­e­brate and re­joice in the mem­ory of Keerthi Nis­sanka Senevi­ratne for 31 un­bro­ken years.

Life and Work

There is in­deed much to cel­e­brate in the life and work of the splen­dored per­son­al­ity and the mul­ti­fac­eted work of Prof. K N Senevi­ratne -- doc­tor, phys­i­ol­o­gist, sci­en­tist, ed­u­ca­tion­ist and ad­min­is­tra­tor. I had the priv­i­lege of be­ing his col­league in the Colombo Med­i­cal Fac­ulty for nearly two decades. De­spite my can­tan­ker­ous and ar­gu­men­ta­tive na­ture, there was never so much as an an­gry word be­tween us. Time has con­firmed the va­lid­ity of in­stant judge­ment of him soon af­ter I heard the news of his death: “He was the sweet­est man I have ever known. He was my best friend.”

As a med­i­cal doc­tor who spe­cialised in phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­search, per­haps his ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion was to the un­der­stand­ing of di­a­betic neu­ropa­thy, that is to say the ad­verse ef­fect of di­a­betes on the nerves. On this sub­ject he pub­lished many pa­pers in the pres­ti­gious Jour­nal of Neu­rol­ogy Neu­ro­surgery and Psy­chi­a­try. His work sug­gested a sim­ple test for de­tect­ing the ef­fect of di­a­betes on the nerves be­fore the typ­i­cal symp­toms such as numb­ness and a feel­ing of be­ing pricked with nee­dles ap­pear.

Med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion­ist and ad­min­is­tra­tor

Prof. Senevi­ratne may be justly called the fa­ther of post­grad­u­ate med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion in our coun­try. In 1974, he was hand­picked by the au­thor­i­ties to cre­ate and direct our Post-Grad­u­ate In­sti­tute of Medicine (PGIM). This laid the foun­da­tion for sys­tem­atic recog­nised post­grad­u­ate med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion in the coun­try. He had to wage a mi­nor war al­most sin­gle­hand­edly to change the en­trenched at­ti­tude of our doc­tors from wor­ship of for­eign med­i­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Thanks to his pre­science, we now have a post-grad­u­ate in­sti­tute of medicine of in­ter­na­tional stan­dard. He was truly the sem­i­nal founder of our pres­ti­gious PGIM.

By virtue of the ex­pe­ri­ence he ac­quired in set­ting up the PGIM, Prof. Senevi­ratne was cho­sen as the re­gional ad­vi­sor to the WHO in the South East Asian re­gion. He joined the WHO in 1981 and was soon pro­moted to the po­si­tion of Se­nior Pub­lic Health Ad­vi­sor in Health Man­power De­vel­op­ment, a task he car­ried out with great en­thu­si­asm. In fact, his un­timely much lamented death came when he was en­gaged in this work in Bali In­done­sia.


His end came in the form of a mas­sive heart at­tack caused by clot­ting of blood in one of the ma­jor ar­ter­ies sup­ply­ing the heart. It killed this large hearted, sharp brained, gi­ant of a man and jewel of a hu­man be­ing in­stantly. Such an exit was some­thing he yearned for and some­how achieved.

As it has turned out, the Phys­i­o­log­i­cal so­ci­ety of Sri Lanka has in­vited Yoshi­hiro Ishikawa, Pro­fes­sor and chair of Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Re­search In­sti­tute, Yoko­hama city Univer­sity School of Medicine, Ja­pan to de­liver the K.N. Senevi­ratne ora­tion this year. He will speak on “De­vel­op­ment and fail­ure of hu­man artery”. This topic is sin­gu­larly ap­pro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing that it was fail­ure of one kind or an­other in his coro­nary ar­ter­ies that killed Prof. K.N. Senevi­ratne.

He had se­ri­ous coro­nary artery dis­ease. He knew bet­ter than most peo­ple (He ob­tained dis­tinc­tions in Phys­i­ol­ogy and Medicine) about is­chaemic heart dis­ease. He knew that among the many risk fac­tors for coro­nary artery dis­ease, smok­ing was a ma­jor one, but he could not or some­how did not give up smok­ing. He used to say “what­ever will be, will be”. When the end came he was lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic of Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach. As his heart­bro­ken Scot­tish wife, Ali­son Alexan­der lamented in a let­ter to me: “lis­ten­ing to Bach was a lovely way to go but such a shock to those who were left be­hind”.

The or­a­tor, Prof. Ishikawa is a world author­ity on ar­te­rial dis­ease and it will be worth lis­ten­ing to his ora­tion which will be de­liv­ered at the Fac­ulty of Medicine Colombo on November 16 at 6 pm. All are wel­come.

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