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A portrait from memory : Dr. Thiagarajah Visvanathan

by Carlo Fonseka -DN Wed Aug 6 2003

By the death on July, 9 of Dr. Thiagarajah Visvanathan - the only teacher of mine in whom I induced a burning hatred of me - the now defunct North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) lost its first Competent Authority. Destiny had decreed that with the strong support of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the approval of the Cabinet, I should summarily displace him from the position of Competent Authority and preside over the withering away of the NCMC. He never forgave me for that.

Perhaps with the exception of Professor G. H. Cooray, who taught us Pathology, Dr. V was quite the most effective didactic teacher in the Colombo Medical School during my time. He taught us Gynaecology. Our Professor of Surgery, Milroy Paul, arguably the most colourful, literate and articulate of our teachers, used to disparage Gynaecology as an intellectually undemanding subject. "After all", he used to jibe, "it is only concerned with one narrow short tube and two golfball-sized ovaries". That was true as far as it went. The precisely exam-oriented young lecturer that Dr V was in our student days, he made the easy subject a piece of cake for us. So much so, that without being particularly interested in it, I won the Gold Medal for the subject.

For medical students cramming furiously for fiercely competitive examinations, the best teachers are not those dedicated to inculcating in them habits of critical thinking, giving them a sense of the canons of rational discourse and providing them with an insight into the scope and limits of knowledge. On the contrary, the best, or at any rate the most popular, teachers are those who teach them how to pass, without too much blood, sweat and tears, the endless, blasted examinations. In my time, Dr. V was a very popular teacher.

When I became a teacher in the Colombo Medical School in due course, I consciously tried to imitate him. Gradually we came to form a sort of mutual admiration society, I with all the deference of a junior colleague. In midwifery courses he organized for post-graduates he commissioned from me as many lectures as I could give. moreover, he often sat in on my lectures. This made me fret myself into a nervous state from fear that I might botch up the lectures. Whenever I entered the lecture hall and saw him seated at the back of the hall, I often wished that I tripped and fell and broke a leg there and then that I might not have to give the lecture in his presence!

Libel

I well remember the afternoon I gave a lecture on "The metabolic Response to Trauma". Anticipating his possible presence at the lecture, I wrote out the lecture in full and read it aloud ten times before I came to deliver it. So, without a note, I was able to regurgitate the whole thing much like a poem, word perfect, and in perfect order.

At the end of the lecture he came up to me and said, "Son, your lecture was so lucid and logical, that I can repeat it, here and now, word for word". Boy, didn't I feel intoxicated to hear that from the acknowledged master of the art. All I could do was to blurt, "Sir, in praising me, you are praising yourself. You are my model". Yet, not many years later, he was to savage me so mercilessly before the University Services Appeals Board, for alleged misdemeanours I committed in connection with the NCMC, that the Chairman of the Board, Justice O.S.M. Seneviratne felt constrained to say, "Dr. V, I fear that there will be a libel case at the end of these proceedings". I was, however, totally unaffected emotionally by his lambasting of me. If you care to know, my anger is provoked only by people who tell home-truths about me.

Academic career

Born on November 22, 1920 and educated at Royal College Colombo, in 1937, he passed the Senior Cambridge Examination in the First Class gaining Distinctions in Physics and Latin. He joined the Colombo Medical School, excelled as a student and graduated MBBS in 1944, winning the Maneckbai Dadabhoy Gold Medal for Midwifery and the Naomi Thiagarajah Prize for Midwifery.

His brilliant performance in Midwifery set the direction of his future specialization and career. He sailed through his post-graduate examinations, gaining the FRCS (Edin) in 1950s; the Master of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (Ceylon) in 1952; the MRCOG (Great Britain) in 1958. He was conferred the FRCOG (Great Britain) in 1975 and the FCOG (Sri Lanka) in 1984.

In 1951, he secured a Senior Lectureship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon, which was the only medical school in the country at that time. He soon acquired a reputation as a superb lecturer. He also cultivated a very busy private practice. In those days, new recruits to the university staff were not entitled to private practice. Dr. V, however, won for himself the right to private practice by a court order. Thereby he predictably became the envy of other clinical teachers. Although I cannot vouch for this, it was said that in courts, he had shrewdly trumped the redoubtable Sir Nicholas Attygalle himself, his mentor. He came to be widely admired for his didactic skills, though not, perhaps, for his single-minded pursuit of self-interest.

At one time, he had a problem with the law and consequently with the university authorities. He was denied access to the university wards in the Teaching Hospital and the university authorities seemed to be in no great hurry to dispose of the matter. He became exasperated by the law's delay. At that stage he sent for me and poured his heart out to me. Things were sorted out and he bounced back unscathed. Even so, not all his legitimate aspirations were fulfilled in the Colombo Medical School.

As it happened some decades ago, provision was made for a university lecturer to become a professor by promotion, on the basis of a non-competitive evaluation on a specific marking scheme. Professorships so achieved are personal to the holder. The professorship in a given discipline, however, - the Chair as it is called - is filled only by advertisement and open competition. Like so many others, Dr. V easily acquired a professorship by promotion. Although he made a strong bid for the Chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the Colombo Medical School, to the service of which he had given his entire working life as a specialist, he failed to make it. Understandably he felt rejected, dejected, ignored and passed over by his peers. He complained bitterly of discrimination. I fear he proved to be an outstanding example of upward failure. In retrospect, it was as a lecturer that he was an outstanding success.

NCMC

When the NCMC was launched in 1981, he was one of its staunchest supporters. One of his daughters was a student and later a member of the staff in the NCMC when he was Competent Authority. I had the pleasure of teaching two of his other daughters, both very personable, one very bright, at the Colombo Medical College.

It will be recalled that the NCMC was the focus of a major national crisis and, because of unstoppable public agitation, eventually came to be vested in the government in 1989. Dr. V was handpicked to be its Competent Authority. It certainly required great courage on his part to accept that position at that time. He manifestly enjoyed the exercise of absolute academic and administrative power associated with the post, even as I did, when I succeeded him. It was in relation to one particular aspect of the NCMC that he and I came to have irreconcilable differences.

In 1991 I had been appointed Professor of Physiology and acting Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, of the University of Kelaniya, which was struggling to be born. The eighth and final batch of students to be NCMC graduates had been admitted in 1988 and were scheduled to graduate in 1995. Thus from 1991 to 1995, medical students of the NCMC and of the University of Kelaniya had to share the same infrastructure and resources.

Tensions between the two groups were perhaps inevitable and conflicts between them were indeed predicted. To the credit of both groups of students, they got on with each other without a conflagration, if not like house on fire. The tension that erupted was between the Dean of the Kelaniya Medical Faculty (myself) and the Competent Authority of the NCMC (Dr. V) concerning the academic staff of the NCMC.

From the word go, I was determined to ensure that recruitment of permanent academic staff to the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya shall be done by open advertisement, strictly according to the statutory schemes applicable to all medical faculties. Dr. V. insisted that the staff of the NCMC should be transferred lock, stock and barrel, to the permanent staff of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya.

This conflict only surfaced rather late during his tenure as Competent Authority and at first all between us went merry as a marriage bell. For example, he invited me as Guest-of-Honour to the Third Convocation of the NCMC held on 4 June, 1992. Speaking from a prepared text on that occasion, I said, amongst other things: ".....For Professor V my marvellous erstwhile teacher, later my senior colleague in the Colombo Medical School, and now Competent Authority of the NCMC and my fairy godfather in the NCMC, things are unarguably different. When he decides to do a thing, he has the absolute authority to do it, and he does it...."

Absolute authority

Using that absolute authority he had recruited without any advertisement, a host of people to the NCMC whom he wanted to foist on the Faculty of Medicine. The militant students of the new Medical Faculty insisted on the right to be taught by properly recruited staff and in this they had my unqualified concurrence.

This led to confrontations between the CA and the NCMC and the students of the Faculty of Medicine in which I sided with the students, as a matter of principle.

Preferring as he tended to do, people to principles, Dr. V interpreted my stance as gross disloyalty to him. He deeply resented me and encouraged several members of the NCMC he had arbitrarily recruited to the NCMC to have resource to litigation against me, in which he himself appeared as the key witness. Let me say at once that none of those who litigated succeeded in securing a permanent post in the Faculty of Medicine.

It is not pleasant to recount all the lurid details of the confrontation that ensued between us from early 1993 onwards. Suffice it to say that I deeply regretted the administrative and legal conflict with my erstwhile teacher, and some members of the NCMC academic staff, among whom were one dear relative and several dear friends.

Except for those who were going to be direct beneficiaries of Dr. V's master plan. I did not incur the overt opprobrium of any of my contemporaries and peers, concerning the stance I adopted. Dr. V and his favourites, of course, became my enemies. To administer is to choose, and to choose is to displease those who are not chosen.

Looking back, was the enmity I provoked worth it? The unhappiness I caused those affected would indeed oppress me, were I not able to survey with pride the current academic excellence of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya. In my more fanciful moments I imagine that what was said of the American President, Grover Cleveland also applies to me: "They love him most for the enemies he has made".

Dr. V was a very devoted family man and enjoyed an intense family life. The members of his family must abhor me and curse me for the suffering that pater familias endured over this matter. The truth is that he suffered as a direct consequence of trying his damnedest, for reasons best known to himself, to subvert the hallowed principle of recruiting by open competition the best qualified candidate to fill academic posts in state universities.

For my part, the fact that I disagreed with him on this particular matter and in the event, successfully defended the principle, did not diminish my love for him as a teacher whose teaching made learning so easy for me. If his family demands to know why, if I loved him, I firmly resisted him, my answer is: "Not that I loved him less, but that I loved Kelaniya's Medical Faculty more".