Lives of the fellows

Rajadurai Selliah Thanabalasundrum

b.16 July 1922 d.15 November 2007
MB BS Ceylon(1946) MD(1954) FRCP(1974)

Rajadurai Selliah Thanabalasundrum was a consultant at the General Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a much respected and admired physician and clinical teacher. He was born in Kokuvil, Jaffna, to Ramapillai Chellaiya, a medical practitioner, and Sornammah née Appapillai, traditional Hindu parents. He attended primary school locally and thereafter entered the Royal College, Colombo, where he had a brilliant academic record and won many prizes and awards. He then went to Colombo Medical College, where he continued his remarkable academic career.

As a medical student he lived at Brodie hostel at the same time as my father, A D H Samaranayaka, Sam Wijesinghe, Charlie Munasinghe and H M P Perera. My father and Sam Wijesinghe recalled that ‘Thanaballs’ (as he was affectionately called) was a brilliant and diligent student, who studied each page of his medical textbooks thoroughly before turning the page, fully absorbing the contents. In his inimitable style, he breezed through the medical faculty, obtaining first class honours in all examinations including the final MB BS, where he obtained distinctions in medicine, surgery and obstetrics and gynaecology, a rare feat.

He held a junior post at the General Hospital, Colombo, and was then a research assistant to the professor of medicine. In the early 1950s he went to the UK, where he was a senior house officer at Hammersmith Hospital. He gained his MD in 1954.

On his return home, he became a physician in his native town, Jaffna, and then, two years later, in 1956, he was appointed as a consultant physician to the General Hospital, Colombo. It was during this period that he gained his reputation as an eminent and caring physician and teacher.

He treated all patients alike, irrespective of their status. The attention and time each patient received during the ward round depended entirely on the severity of the illness or how puzzling the clinical problem was. He had a remarkable ability of just looking at a patient and making an on-the-spot diagnosis. Invariably he was always right, much to amazement of his students and junior staff.

He was one of the first clinicians to give peritoneal dialysis to victims of snake bite who had developed kidney failure. During such dialysis, two medical students would spend the entire night in the ward, taking turns to maintain the input-output charts, change tubes and drips, etc. They had, of course, to return to work the next morning!

I had the good fortune to carry out my first clinical attachment as a medical student under Thanabalasundrum’s guidance and it was from him that I learnt the basics of bedside medicine. He impressed upon us the value of good history taking and complete clinical examination. His Bible for clinical information was Hutchison’s clinical methods. His definition of bronchial breathing, which I learnt from him in 1971, is better defined than in any textbook, and still echoes in my ears.

During the two months of the clinical attachment our student group worked very hard to please our guru, and at the end we entertained him and his wife to dinner at Akasa Kade, a restaurant in Colombo, to show our deep gratitude for all we had learnt. It cost each of us only 50 rupees!

Many years later, when I was a physician at the Colombo North Teaching Hospital in Ragama, it was with much awe that I sat with him as a fellow examiner, assessing students for the final MB BS examination. At the time he was overjoyed that his grandson had been selected to do medicine in the United States and I had the pleasure of showing him clinical problems at the Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital.

In 1956 he married Pamathy Sivagnanasundrum and they had two daughters and a son. Despite his final, brief illness, his interest in clinical medicine never wavered and he remained alert to the end. His daughter recalls how his eyes shone when H H R Samarasinghe, his doctor, discussed an interesting clinical problem with him.

R S Thanabalasundrum will be fondly remembered for his commitment to clinical teaching, his caring of the sick, his warmth, simplicity and humane qualities and, above all, for his devotion to the cause of medicine.

Anula Wijesundere

[The Sunday Times online; Ceylon Medical Journal Vol 53 No 4(2008) p.160]

(Volume XII, page web)

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