Dr. R. L Spittel
Book Review by Arjuna Hulugalle
Surgeon of the Wilderness
The Biography of R.L.Spittel by Christine Spittel Wilson (revised edition)
Published by Sooriya Publishers
Price: Sri Lanka Rs 360.-
Christine Wilson on the life of her father, Dr Richard Spittel
There is no greater achievement for a parent than to have earned the love and respect of a child. Few and very few are doubly blessed with a child so skilled that she could articulate this devotion in the form of a manuscript.
Christine Wilson's book on her father Dr R.L.Spittel called "The Surgeon in the Wilderness" is certainly one such rare expression of a brilliant writer's thoughts of an outstanding father, his life and work. Christine unfolds her story with such sensitivity that it is not a mere biographical sketch but has without doubt become a part of this country's literary heritage.
Spittel's life spanned from 1881 to 1969. In today's troubled world one thinks of the spirit of that period as gone forever. This narrative gives many purple moments to the reader, which one can only hold onto dearly as they were the values of one of Sri Lanka's greatest sons. How we yearn with nostalgia for those days when people of the calibre of Spittel strode the scene.
What was it that was so fascinating about the medical career of Dr Spittel?
It was rare and unique in that he was not only an internationally reputed surgeon, who commanded respect of his peers here and abroad with his prowess as a surgeon and diagnostician, but he was fearless in undertaking new medical techniques, meeting the challenges with such dedication and care to the
welfare of his patients. All this with physical handicaps which nature and life had bestowed on him.
Christine writes of an instance of Spittel's daring as a surgeon: "One day a young man was brought in badly haemorrhaging." Spittel sent for the physiologist of the Medical College."I want to give this man a blood transfusion" he said. "Sir, we are taking a terrible risk."
"The patient will certainly die, if we don't. If it comes off even if there's only a one-in-a thousand chance of saving him, we"ll have achieved something. Go on, try out the blood."
A rough cross was done: a drop of blood here, a drop of blood there. It did not clot.
"Right. Give him the transfusion. I'll take full responsibility."
The reaction was immediate. The man shivered in icy rigor. Then came the soaring temperature. ..104,.105. A minor subgroup factor had caused what is known as "clumping". Richard stood by, using every technique he knew to counteract the reaction. The patient survived. It was the first blood transfusion given in Ceylon. It was Richard's blood that was used."
The annals of the Medical profession must have recorded many an achievement of Spittel. The layman, however, can only get an inside view from a book such as this. Christine's narratives of incidents and experiences on bone grafting, skin grafting, replacing new noses for old and ward work are fascinating.
She tops it with references to his original investigations and research on yaws or Framboesia Tropica, which was brought to this country by the Portuguese five hundred years ago and about which very little was known.
Here she describes Spittel's approach to Medicine: " While collecting original material for a book on this subject he meticulously kept files, experimented and used special capsules of his own dispensed by chemists in England, and used these in conjunction with external treatment. His formula was evolved from older drugs that were used. Making endless notes, he took careful case histories and continued curing cases."
Christine also describes how her father, took on the task of treating patients with Venereal Diseases. It was the way he approached the subject that is enthralling. Original research was the key factor. Spittel had already written to a French Monograph by Valentine on a special cure by irrigation twice a day. Spittel continued on his research on the subject. During this period, he had to finish writing a book on "A Basis of Surgical Ward Work".
After that, he was ready to publish his findings on his V.D. Research for the British Medical Journal.
At the same time, working on parallel lines, a brilliant British Doctor had come to identical conclusions, and made public his findings. These findings led to the doctor being knighted. Richard was beaten to his discoveries by a few months.
Christine writes: He would often laugh about it. "It might have made me famous, but what good would that have done anyone?". Honours meant little to him; it was the discovery that appealed to him.
Spittel married his batch mate at Medical College, Clariebel van Dort, who was the daughter of one of the most distinguished physicians at the time Dr W.G.van Dort. Clarie's mother was a McCarthy. Her sister had married A.Y.Daniel. Clarie won the coveted gold medal for surgery in her finals but it was Richard who left to seek the Fellowship in Surgery soon after.
Naturally, Spittel came from a tradition of medicine. His father was himself a doctor and introduced Richard to medicine even as early as a seven year old, while taking him to witness post mortems. Healing and caring became second nature to him. It was however, his disciplined study and devotion and love for the profession that made Spittel the great doctor he became.
The name of Dr Richard Spittel is not restricted to medicine. His love for anthropology led him to a mammoth study of the Veddahs. He recognised the importance of the research on this tribe of people as the chances of them becoming extinct was a matter of time.
Christine writes: "Here, in Ceylon, was one of the most primitive and anthropologically important people in the world, virtually unknown, deeply hidden. He had already started to find every Vedda in the Ceylon jungles.
...An old treatise notes that the Veddas once addressed the king by "the now obsolete title of 'Hura' or cousin.
It was a title by which one day Richard was to be known by every Vedda in Ceylon, because they recognised in him the kinship."
There was another area Spittel spent many an hour toiling against insurmountable odds. This was in matters connected with the Environment. During his lifetime 'Ecology' and 'Environment' consciousness was minimal.
Even as an octogenarian, Spittel took on the project of fighting for and saving the Deduru Oya herd of elephants. Once the herd was made up of 250 magnificent animals. He was worried that the herd will be totally eliminated. His premonition, unfortunately, became a reality.
Christine Wilson returned to Sri Lanka after long years abroad with her husband, Alistair, to live in a house opposite the building of the famous Nursing Home, which her father built. Apart from being a writer of great distinction, she is a gifted artist and paints not only on canvas but also on porcelain. Her color sense cannot be beaten, it is beautiful as Christine herself.
This book is a rare effort, which cuts through the clothes that divide the human race, especially today. It reveals effectively the bare bones of humanity. Spittel showed that a sophisticated Fellow of the Royal Society of Surgeons could relate to a pre-historic man as a "Hura" (cousin). This was possible because both accepted the fact that they were a part of the same human race.