Lives of the fellows

William Arthur Edward Karunaratne

b.16 November 1887 d.14 October 1966
CMG(1952) OBE(1948) KSG(1947) MB BS Lond(1917) MD Med(1921) MD Path(1935) MRCP(1950) FRCP(1955) DSc Lond(1966) Hon DSc Ceylon(1953)

William Arthur Edward Karunaratne was born in Negombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the son of Minneripitige Don Miguel Karunaratne, a public notary, and his wife Leanage Dona Maria. He was educated at St Joseph’s College, Colombo, where he distinguished himself both at studies and sport, playing cricket for the school first eleven. He pursued his medical studies at University College, London, where he was one of the most brilliant students, winning the Bucknill Scholarship, the Filitter Exhibition, and prizes and medals in practically every subject in the medical curriculum. After graduating, he worked for some time in England and passed his MD in medicine in 1921. On his return to Ceylon, he worked as pathologist, General Hospital, Colombo, and later as lecturer in pathology. In 1936 he was appointed the first professor of pathology of the Ceylon Medical College. By this time he had obtained the MD pathology by thesis. In 1942 he was unanimously elected Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon, and a Fellow of University College, London, in 1948. In 1950 he was awarded the MRCP on the strength of his publications and in 1955 he was elected to the Fellowship. In 1952 he was awarded a DSc (Honoris Causa) by the University of Ceylon, and the University of London awarded him a DSc for his monograph on Rhmosporidiosis, which was the most comprehensive publication on the subject and is widely quoted to the present day. His researches took him into many areas but his main interests were Rhinosporidiosis and liver diseases.

Professor Karunaratne’s contributions to science won for him the highest office in professional bodies in Ceylon. He was President of the Ceylon Medical Association and General President, Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science. A devout Catholic, he was for several years President of the Catholic Union of Ceylon. The Church honoured him by making him a Papal Knight of the Order of St Gregory. The OBE was conferred on him by King George VI in 1948, and the CMG in 1952.

His interests did not stop with science, for he was a collector of rare and original manuscripts, stamps and antiques. His special hobby was collecting autographs and he had a fine collection of letters containing signatures of many of the most distinguished people of the world over several centuries. Among these letters of royalty, statesmen, famous writers and scientists, he kept a letter from Dr H.Batty Shaw under whom he had worked as a student and to whom he owed much. It is unlikely that any other physician has ever had one of his private letters so affectionately filed in such august company.

Professor Karunaratne will always be remembered as a gentle person, with a gaunt frame and piercing eyes, long, flowing grey hair, formal in his dress; a most amiable person, equally at ease with students, colleagues and subordinates, to all of whom he endeared himself. He never lost his temper no matter how trying the circumstances. As a superior, he was kind and considerate to his juniors and if ever the necessity arose to correct them he was more embarrassed than anyone else. He had a keen sense of humour and he would often be seen chuckling gleefully at subtle jokes.

In 1921 he married Benedicta Clotilda Millicent, daughter of G.S.Perera, and they had five children, one of whom is an obstetrician. A devoted husband and indulgent father, he would never refuse his family anything they asked for. With his old world charm, chivalrous and courteous ways, and scholarly achievements, he was a legend in the medical world in Sri Lanka. His death in 1966 ws mourned by all who knew him. His epitaph could well have been: 'To have known him was to have loved him’.

Daphne Aggatalle
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1966, 2, 1395, 1538; Lancet, 1966, 2, 1140]

(Volume VI, page 262)

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