Lives of the fellows

William Dharmaraja Ratnavale

b.10 March 1913 d.26 October 1995
LMS Ceylon(1936) MB BS Lond(1949) DCP(1950) MRCP(1951) MD(1952) DPH( 1952) FRCPath(1968) FRCP(1971)

William Dharmaraja Ratnavale was a man with a Midas touch. He gave dignity and lustre to whatever institution he created or was in charge of. He was born in Kandy, the son of a doctor. He was educated at one of Sri Lanka’s most prestigious educational institutions, Trinity College, where he excelled both in his studies and at sport. He went on to the Ceylon Medical College, where he blossomed to be one of the most colourful alumni of that institution - his academic performance there and later in the UK was phenomenal. During the Second World War he served as a graded specialist in pathology in the Army. He then worked for two years as an assistant pathologist at Colombo General Hospital. Awarded a government scholarship for postgraduate studies in the UK, he went to London, to St Bartholomew’s and University College Medical Schools. He qualified in 1949 and in the next few years passed his MD and the membership examination of the London College. On his return to Sri Lanka in 1952 he was appointed chief pathologist at Colombo General Hospital and served there until 1964.

He had a winning way in whatever he undertook, and in all his actions and institutions, discipline and decorum was his motto. A private laboratory, an institution he named glass house’, is testimony to his creative talents. The laboratory earned high praise, not only from his colleagues in Sri Lanka, but also from abroad. He also demonstrated his organizing ability by the way he ran the North Colombo Medical College. In a short period of time he created a prestigious medical school of a high order. In addition, two fully equipped wards and an X-ray unit were handed over to the Colombo North General Hospital at Ragama. These were erected and fitted out under his constant supervision and direction. After being director of the Medical College for nearly a decade he retired from his post to lead a quiet life.

He had a knack for introducing new trends into drab scientific meetings. One such innovation was entitled ‘smoking discussion’, a curious forum for a Fellow of the College, where participants would gather after dinner and, while sipping coffee and smoking, discuss topics such as ‘What should the doctor tell his patients?’ These discussions, as well as his lectures on clinical pathology, made the Ceylon Academy of Postgraduate Medicine a popular forum.

He was a good teacher. While in London he had coached many of his friends for the London membership examination. He presided over a range of organizations, including the Ceylon Public Health Association, the Ceylon Association of Social and Preventative Medicine, the Ceylon Medical Association and the Ceylon Academy of Postgraduate Medicine - the forerunner of today’s Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. In recognition of his service to his country he was appointed honorary physician to the governor general of Ceylon in 1962.

All work did not make him a dull boy, for he was a man of many parts. His military career included active service during the Second World War and territorial service from 1932 to 1964. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel commanding the Ceylon Army Medical Corps in 1962 and served in that capacity until 1965.

He was a keen on rugby and captained the Ceylon rugby team in the All India Tournament. He was president of the Ceylon Rugby Football Union. His other interests included reading, gardening, building and even housekeeping. He was an excellent conversationalist. He dressed simply, but neatly, and spoke softly, but firmly and directly.

Success did not make him flamboyant or ostentatious. One might wonder how a pathologist who peers through a microscope could achieve such success. But, when one recalls that he was a pathologist, one can appreciate his reluctance to permit disorder in his work, when one knows he was a top rugby player, one sees how cleanly he tackled problems and, finally, when one knows he was in military service, one can have no difficulty in understanding how he planned and executed strategies with exactitude.

He married Lilavathy Coomarasamy in 1941. They had two daughters, one of whom is a doctor. With his knowledge and skill he could have gone to another country, especially as his children were abroad, but he was happy serving his people in Sri Lanka. He was buried in the General Cemetery, Kanatta, Colombo, with full military honours.

P Sivasubramaniam

[Ceylon Medical Journal, 1996,41,31]

(Volume X, page 403)

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