Sunday Times August 29,
Our Burgher community who were of Dutch,
German and French origin had several women of great character and good
education. The humane touch of these fair complexioned good looking women, is
known to have illuminated this fair isle. In 1892 they identified themselves as
pioneers by embracing the medical profession.
Deloraine Brohier, one of their kin living
with us today, in a well documented publication refers to Dr. Henrietta Keyt who
worked for a medical mission in Jaffna. Other "Angels" as they were
known, were Dr. Evelyn Davidson who died in 1943 and Dr. Claribel Van Dort who
won a Gold Medal for Surgery and later became the wife of that well-known
ambidextrous Surgeon and anthropologist Dr. R. L. Spittel. Dr. Claribel was
President of the Ceylon Red Cross Society, which she served with distinction.
Others of her kind and time were Dr.
Raechelle Christolfesz, Dr. Ursula Van Royen and Dr. Sylvia Ebert. Dr. Alice De
Boer, LRCP. (Edin.) was the first local woman to be sent abroad on a medical
scholarship. She worked at the Lady Havelock Hospital and died in 1955.
When the patriarchal medical profession was
broken into, these women of great endeavour paved the way for Sinhalese women to
follow in their foot-steps. The first Sinhalese woman to enter the Medical
College was Lucy De Abrew in 1902 and she was followed by Mary De Livera (later
Rathnayake) and Veronica Weerasekera. They had the support of several liberal
minded men led by Dr. James Loos, a medical educationalist, Hector Van
Cuylenberg, and the barrister - newspaper proprietor, Charles Ambrose Lorensz
who owned The Examiner after 1862. Lorensz was a great fighter of the time for
The span of six decades from about 1885 wit-
nessed the Buddhist revivalist movement spearheaded by Col. Henry Olcott, Ven.
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera,
Walisinghe Harischandra, Anagarika Dharmapala and several others. The
restoration work of the Ruwanveli Maha Seya, the Tissa Maha Seya, Seruvila Maha
Seya and the Kelani Raja Maha Vihare had begun. Further, several large Buddhist
schools were founded in Colombo, Galle and in Kandy.
There also blossomed great talent in the
fields of art, music and drama.
It was during this period that a Sinhalese
They were associated with export of plumbago,
government subcontracting to build roadways, hospitals and the port and also
opened up virgin land to cultivate rubber, tea and coconut. Some took to
furniture making and arrack renting, whilst the import trade was actively
developed around Maliban and Prince Streets, Pettah.
The social scenario changed fast whilst all
this activity was taking place. The businessmen's wives and daughters who
attended schools such as Musaeus College, Visakha Vidyalaya and Southlands Galle,
spontaneously stepped out to help in social welfare. Buddhism which refers to
the Bodhisattva ideals of Maha Karuna and sacrifice for the betterment of the
needy, was certainly an impetus in their endeavours to comfort the aged, the
infirm, the deaf and blind, and orphans.
Social welfare did not usually concern the
colonial rulers as they were more keen to develop a railway system, and promote
external trade of their plantation crops managed by Agency Houses.
Mallika Hewavitharane of Matara was one of
the first Sinhalese women, from a business-minded successful family to think
ahead of her times.
She took steps to purchase several acres of
land and build a home for elderly women. This Home was to be cared for by the
Mallika Nivasa Samithiya, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary by
embarking on an ambitious building project to house more inmates.
Mrs. H. M. Gunasekera together with Lady
Evadne de Silva in 1938 founded the Gamini Matha Home for males, situated by the
Beira Lake, Colombo. This home now run by the YMBA, Colombo has 52 inmates above
Lady Evadne de Silva, together with her
husband Sir Ernest de Silva, who was known as the quiet philanthrophist and
onetime President of the YMBA, also donated nine acres land at Walana,
Katunayake to set up a large orphanage and school with a playgound. The Walana
Orphanage is also maintained by the Colombo YMBA.
The Vihara Maha Devi Orphanage, Biyagama was
founded about 53 years ago, and its founder President (who held office for 25
years) was Mrs. Constance Gunasekera (wife of Dr. C. H. Gunasekera, the
well-known Ceylon Cricketer) who set up this large Home which has over 150
Orphan children from 2 to 18 years, Noteworthy help was given for this home by
Dudley Senanayake and the Directors of the Chettinad Corporation, Colombo.
In 1931 two women of great ability and vision
Dr. Mrs. Mary Rutnam and Miss Cissy Cooray established The Lanka Mahila Samitiya.
Their aim was to move out of the metropolis and to train rural women in numerous
skills such as sewing, lace making, pottery, basket and mat weaving, making of
soft toys etc. At that time free education had not been introduced.
The level of literacy was comparatively low,
and people were conservative. Their aim was therefore to improve the quality of
The Lanka Mahila Samiti Centre was founded at
Kaduwela. This centre was a powerhouse of women's activity, and their produce
was soon on sale in the city. These two women leaders and the Samitiya were
helped by a fine team. A few notable names are Mrs. Violet Rajapakse, Mrs.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Mrs. Loranee Senaratne, Lady Vaithiyanathan, Mrs. Swarna
Guruge and Mrs. Anoja Amerasinghe Fernando, Miss Cooray, one of the founders,
served that institution for 35 long years.
Miss Cissy Cooray was also President for 23
years (1942 to 1963) of the Sri Lankadhara Society, High Street, Wellawatte.
This indefatigable social worker was born on June 8th 1889. She steered the work
of this orphanage on the death of her aunt, Mrs. Catherine de Silva (wife of Dr.
W.A. de Silva). The De Silvas had no children. For that reason, they purchased
over two acres land at Wellawatta to build a two-storeyed home that today houses
over 150 orphans and a vocational training centre. Miss Cooray was the first
lady Senator we had under the Soulbury Constitution and for her outstanding
efforts in social welfare she was awarded the OBE. She passed away at the age of
75, and in her honour a "Senior Citizens Home for Women" was founded
on the Lankadhara premises. Mrs. N. S. C. (Winnie) Perera thereafter served this
orphanage as President for 27 years.
The Ceylon Social Services League was founded
over 85 years ago by Sir James Peiris, D. R. Wijewardena, and K. Balasingham, a
barrister and legislator. This age-old institution has had the good fortune to
have for years great leadership from Mrs. Sita Seneviratne and several others.
Some God-fearing Christians are also
noteworthy for their love of the less fortunate. Miss M.O.M. Carter, MBE.,
looked after the Deaf and Blind School before they became two separate
institutions at Ratmalana.
Her Mission gave her much needed finance and
These children were educated in Braille, and
one student named M.Simon who attended S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia in 1947
was able to pass the S.S.C. (English) examination using the Braille alphabet.
Mrs. A. Jayasekera, MBE., was another who
provided within her own premises, much-needed shelter and care for women of
misfortune. Her "Home" was named The Jayasekera Home for Women at
Francis Road, Wellawatte.
The House of Joy for Children in distant
dusty Talawa, NCP., close to Anuradhapura was yet another place that cared for
Whilst leadership to establish these social
welfare institutions rested with women who were backed up by their hard-working
husbands, they all had a great fund of goodwill from hundreds of like- minded
women who remained unsung heroines. Without their support, the unfortunate in
society would perhaps, never have had food, clothing, shelter and love to uplift