The bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist who bat­tled dis­eases and famine in colo­nial Cey­lon

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT - By Is­meth Ra­heem and Enoka Corea

Be­tween the two World Wars, Sri Lanka was rav­aged by dis­eases and famine. Malaria had wiped out a vast slice of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion. Cholera and small­pox were a per­ma­nent threat in the ghet­toes and slums of the ur­ban cen­tres -- often in­tro­duced by mi­grant labour from neigh­bour­ing South In­dia. Yaws was ram­pant in the ru­ral ar­eas.

Sev­eral im­por­tant net­works of ir­ri­ga­tion tanks and canals lay derelict and rice was im­ported. The takeover of lands by the Waste­land Or­di­nance had ren­dered many of the peas­ant class land­less.

The re­ces­sion, caused by the eco­nomic down­turn made ac­cess to a sus­tain­able nu­tri­tious diet well be­yond the purse of the poor. Med­i­cal ser­vices were read­ily avail­able only to the mid­dle and up­per classes of the cap­i­tal city, Colombo, and a few provin­cial towns.

But over­com­ing these ob­sta­cles and set­backs, a hand­ful of med­i­cal men ad­dressed the over­rid­ing is­sues of treat­ing the poor and the needy. By the end of 1915, with the First World War in progress, a med­i­cal man, trained in Pathol­ogy at the Sea­men’s Hos­pi­tal in Green­wich, Lon­don and Bac­te­ri­ol­ogy at the Post­grad­u­ate School of Clin­i­cal Medicine ar­rived in Colombo to take up the post of Di­rec­tor of the Bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, now re­named the Med­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute (MRI), founded in 1900. He was Dr Lu­cius Ni­cholls LSA (Lon­don), MD. B.C., B.A (Cantab), and he had pre­vi­ously served in St. Lu­cia’s, Bri­tish West In­dies and Kenya.

A decade be­fore he ar­rived, the coun­try’s civil med­i­cal staff con­sisted of one Prin­ci­pal Of­fi­cer, 140 med­i­cal of­fi­cers, 247 apothe­caries, 152 nurses, 114 vac­ci­na­tors and 48 oth­ers. They were ad­min­is­ter­ing 65 hos­pi­tals, 424 Gov­ern­ment dis­pen­saries and 142 es­tate dis­pen­saries. In 1905, as many as 1,850,000 pa­tients had passed through the hos­pi­tal sys­tem and 2,497 sur­gi­cal op­er­a­tions had been per­formed with 88 deaths.

In ad­di­tion to these in­sti­tu­tions, there was the Lu­natic Asy­lum in Jawatha, a Leper Hos­pi­tal, the De Soysa Ly­ing in Home and the Lady Have­lock Hos­pi­tal for Women and Chil­dren. The Colombo Med­i­cal Col­lege, es­tab­lished in 1870, pro­duced the doc­tors to man the hos­pi­tals. In the first decade of the 20th cen­tury, an Eye Hos­pi­tal and a clinic to re­search the ef­fects of Trop­i­cal Dis­eases were founded, in ad­di­tion to the Bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute. To over­see vaccination, a Pas­teur In­sti­tute was added to the health sys­tem in 1917.

These rather inad­e­quate med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties ser­viced a pop­u­la­tion of al­most 2.5 mil­lion cit­i­zens largely scat­tered in re­mote vil­lages and towns. Many of these ar­eas could only be ac­cessed by a skele­tal net­work of roads and rail­ways link­ing Colombo with the ex­cep­tion of the main ur­ban cen­tres of Kandy, and Galle.

Dr Lu­cius Ni­cholls served Sri Lanka for 30 years, be­tween 1915 and 1945, as di­rec­tor of the Bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Pas­teur In­sti­tute and as lec­turer in Trop­i­cal Medicine and Bac­te­ri­ol­ogy at the Cey­lon Med­i­cal Col­lege. Over a short pe­riod, he held the post of Act­ing Med­i­cal Su­per­in­ten­dent of the Lu­natic Asy­lum and Act­ing Gov­ern­ment En­to­mol­o­gist.

He was a pro­lific re­searcher and his ar­ti­cles on a wide range of sub­jects were pub­lished in a va­ri­ety of jour­nals. His in­ter­ests ranged from bac­te­rial and par­a­sitic in­fec­tions to birds, snakes, rep­tiles and in­sects, but his forte was nutri­tion. He was the first As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor of Sec­tion D: Med­i­cal Sci­ences of the Cey­lon Jour­nal of Sci­ence be­tween 1924 and 1941. His sem­i­nal works in medicine in­cluded the first re­port of Me­lioi­do­sis in Sri Lanka, and some vi­tal pa­pers on Vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency. His ma­jor work in her­petol­ogy was ‘A guide to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of land snakes of Cey­lon.’ [1929]

He pub­lished three books on nutri­tion. One, “Trop­i­cal Nutri­tion and Di­etet­ics” [1938] served as a primer in the sub­ject over four edi­tions. He in­spired fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of re­searchers, es­pe­cially Pro­fes­sor T.W. Wikra­manayake who ex­panded on this work and went on to pub­lish many au­thor­i­ta­tive text­books on nutri­tion.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World Ward, he was ap­pointed as the Nu­tri­tional Ad­viser to the Spe­cial Com­mis­sioner for South East Asia and re­ceived a Com­pan­ion to the or­der of St. Michael and St. Ge­orge (CMG) in 1945 for his ser­vices.

Role in other so­cial and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties

Ni­cholls was ac­tive in many fields. Like sev­eral of the Sri Lanka-based Bri­tish med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als such as Wall, Smith and Os­mund Hill, he was an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor and ob­server of birds, snakes and mam­mals. Dur­ing his work on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of land snakes, he de­scribed a new en­demic species of earth snake, which he named Sily­bura phillipsi (now Rhinophis phillipsi), in ac­knowl­edge­ment of the con­tri­bu­tion of W.W.A. Phillips, the renowned nat­u­ral­ist. Many years later, he de­scribed a new gecko from the Malay Penin­sula, and, for this and other con­tri­bu­tions, he was elected a Fel­low of the Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety.

As a keen ob­server of bird life, he listed 71 species of birds at his res­i­dence at McCarthy Road (Wi­jerama Mawatha), Colombo in a fas­ci­nat­ing, in­for­ma­tive ar­ti­cle, The Birds of a Colombo Gar­den, [Loris Nov.1936]pub­lished in the first is­sue of the Loris, the jour­nal of the Cey­lon Game and Fauna Pro­tec­tion So­ci­ety [now the Wildlife and Na­ture Pro­tec­tion So­ci­ety]. His list in­cludes sev­eral species of birds which were com­mon in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury in the city in­clud­ing the Com­mon In­dian Night Jar, Pied Cuckoo, White Browed Bul­bul and Com­mon Iora, birds which are no longer ex­tant in the Colombo city re­flect­ing the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eco­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

In 1930, he was elected as the Pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety for his con­tri­bu­tion to wildlife, and again in 1938. He was for many years an ac­tive mem­ber of the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee and over­saw the Gov­ern­ment de­clared Wil­pattu Re­serve of which he was the hon­orary War­den. He served on the C.V. Brayne­headed Fauna and Flora Pro­tec­tion Com­mit­tee, which led to the pro­mulga- tion of the Fauna and Flora Pro­tec­tion Act. In an ar­ti­cle ti­tled, A symposium on Ticks [Loris June 1945], he ad­vises those do­ing field­work in the forests and scrub jun­gles how to treat tick bites.

He was a keen sup­porter of the newly es­tab­lished Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens at the grounds of the Na­tional Mu­seum and was later translo­cated to De­hi­wela. He ad­vised the Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens staff on the best nutri­tion to be of­fered to the larger mam­mals in their care, and pub­lished his ob­ser­va­tions in the Loris -Notes on the Feed­ing and care of An­i­mals.[Loris Dec.1938].

A keen sports­man, Lu­cius was in­volved in cricket, golf and the Turf Club. He was the Cap­tain of the Royal Colombo Golf Club in 1939/40 and Pres­i­dent in 1944 and the win­ner of the Clif­ford Cup in 1928. Ni­cholls served as a Cap­tain, East African Med­i­cal Ser­vices in Bri­tish East Africa and as a Lieu­tenant in the Cey­lon Med­i­cal Corps in the First World War and is listed in the Cey­lon Roll of Hon­our for World War 1.

He was ac­tively in­volved in the ac­tiv­i­ties of the colony serv­ing as a Com­mit­tee Mem­ber of the Cey­lon Turf Club, the Cey­lon Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety, Civil Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, Med­i­cal Depart­ment Sports Club and the Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens Ad­vi­sory and Stand­ing Com­mit­tees. He served in the com­mit­tee study­ing the Preva­lence of Parangi (yaws) in Sri Lanka and was the Hon. Sec­re­tary to the Cey­lon Coun­cil for Vene­real Dis­ease.

Af­ter leav­ing Sri Lanka, he served as Act­ing Di­rec­tor of the Far East Bu­reau of the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion in Sin­ga­pore be­fore fi­nally re­tir­ing to Bri­tain where he con­tin­ued to com­ment on trop­i­cal dis­eases and nutri­tion in many let­ters to the Ed­i­tor of the Lancet. Surly he was a Man for All Sea­sons.

* Is­meth Ra­heem, Char­tered Ar­chi­tect [is­methra­[email protected]] and Enoka Corea, Se­nior Lec­turer, Mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy

Fac­ulty of Medicine, Univer­sity of Colombo [enoka­[email protected]­].

As a keen ob­server of bird life, he listed 71 species of birds at his res­i­dence at McCarthy Road (Wi­jerama Mawatha), Colombo in a fas­ci­nat­ing, in­for­ma­tive ar­ti­cle, The Birds of a Colombo Gar­den, [Loris Nov.1936]pub­lished in the first is­sue of the Loris, the jour­nal of the Cey­lon Game and Fauna Pro­tec­tion So­ci­ety [now the Wildlife and Na­ture Pro­tec­tion So­ci­ety].

An oil por­trait by J.D.A. Per­era painted circa 1930s.

The Bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, 110 years ago.[Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Im­pres­sions 1908]

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