Lives of the fellows

Sunitha Nimal Wickramasinghe

b.2 July 1941 d.28 June 2009
MB BS Ceylon(1964) MRCS LRCP(1965) PhD Cantab(1968) MRCPath(1975) FIBiol(1982) ScD Cantab(1985) FRCPath(1986) MRCP(1987) FRCP(1991)

Sunitha Wickramasinghe was emeritus professor of haematology at Imperial College, London, and visiting professor in haematology, University of Oxford. He was a Sri Lankan who made a significant contribution to British haematology and contributed internationally in his field of expertise, the ultrastructural morphology of erythropoiesis.

He was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), the son of Percival Herbert Wickramasinghe, chief valuer in Sri Lanka and professor of estate management, and Theresa, a housewife. Following an academically strong high school performance at Royal College, Colombo, he entered the faculty of medicine of the University of Ceylon in 1959. He qualified MB BS with a distinction in medicine in 1964 and in the same year went to the UK to advance his postgraduate medical education.

His first posts were as house surgeon to T L Schofield and then house physician to J R Bolton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.51] at St Martin’s Hospital in Bath. Following this he became house physician to E G L Bywaters [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.86] at the Medical Research Council's Rheumatism Research Unit, Taplow, Buckinghamshire. In 1966 he gained a Gulbenkian research studentship at Churchill College, Cambridge, and became a research student in haematology in the university department of pathology. During this period he had a parallel appointment as honorary senior house officer and honorary registrar in haematology at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. Having gained his PhD in 1968 he was elected to the John Lucas Walker senior (post-doctoral) studentship at the University of Cambridge. His next move was to the University of Leeds, where he was appointed clinical research fellow in the department of experimental pathology and cancer research with a parallel clinical appointment as honorary clinical assistant to M S Losowsky in the department of medicine, University of Leeds.

Following completion of his clinical and research training, and having established himself in the field of ultrastructural morphology of the bone marrow, the rest of his career was in the department of haematology at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London, where he was successively lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor and head of department, thus being awarded a chair in his thirties. Following the incorporation of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School into Imperial College in 1995, he continued in the chair of haematology until his retirement in 2000.

Sunitha’s major research contributions were in the ultrastructure of thalassaemias, the congenital dyserythropoietic anaemias, megaloblastic anaemias and the bone marrow in HIV infection. He studied the effects of alcohol toxicity on the bone marrow, for which he consumed quantities of good quality wine, persuading his colleagues to do the same. It was in the study and diagnosis of congenital dyserythropoietic anaemias that he was pre-eminent and he collaborated with physicians and scientists in the USA, Europe, South East Asia, Africa and China in advancing the understanding of these disorders. He published more than 200 research papers.

During his academic career Sunitha was dedicated to his research. However, he also took a keen interest in the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of haematology. He was instrumental in establishing an intercalated BSc in haematology at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, which continued to thrive after the incorporation of the medical school into Imperial College. His students were entertained to a garden party at his home in Maidenhead, which became an annual event that was eagerly anticipated by all. His students remember him as a kind and caring teacher with a sense of humour.

He was a co-author of an undergraduate haematology text book and editor and major contributor to a postgraduate haematology text. He wrote and edited eight books, with another edition of Blood and bone marrow pathology (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone) being in preparation at the time of his death.

He was an external examiner for the Royal College of Pathologists, both in the British Isles and abroad. He also built up the diagnostic haematology laboratory and the clinical haematology service.

During his career in the UK, Sunitha maintained an interest in the development of haematology in Sri Lanka. A series of recently qualified haematologists spent a year in his department to deepen and strengthen their experience. He also frequently lectured and examined when he returned to visit Colombo. He was the first honorary fellow of the Sri Lanka College of Haematologists.

His love of teaching and travel took him to Ferrara in Italy many times, where he developed a close relationship with Gilberto Berti of the University of Ferrara. Sunitha was a keen photographer who enjoyed travelling. His love of good food and wine led him to perfect the art of cooking a 16th century quince pie which was laboriously prepared and dished out to friends on many occasions.

Following his retirement, he was appointed visiting professor in haematology to the University of Oxford and was able to continue his research into congenital dyserythropoietic anaemias and to train others to continue his work. He continued with clinical work at St Mary’s for several years after his retirement.

He is survived by his wife Priyanthi (née Fernando), his daughters Rushika and Liat (respectively a public health paediatrician and an ecologist), his son Nimal (a trainee microbiologist) and two grandsons.

Barbara J Bain

[The Times 4 September 2009; The Guardian 8 September 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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