Lives of the fellows

Stella Gertrude de Silva

b.2 June 1918 d.12 April 2012
MB BS(1942) DCH MRCP MRCP Edin MD(1956) FRCP(1975) FRCP Edin

Stella Gertrude de Silva was a pioneering paediatrician who founded the department of paediatrics at the North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) and became their first professor of paediatrics. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she was initially educated at Prajapathy Vidyalaya, a local school in Anbalamgoda, and then her parents sent her to Southlands College in Galle at the age of seven. She gained a scholarship to the Ceylon Medical College in 1937, at the age of 19, and qualified in 1942, having been recognised to be the most outstanding student in her year.

In 1952 she travelled to the UK on a government scholarship to continue her training in paediatrics and spent a year at the Institute for Child Health and the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. She then spent a second year at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and the Hammersmith Hospital and obtained the DCH and the membership of both the English and Scottish Colleges of Physicians – the first South East Asian woman to do so.

On her return to Ceylon in 1954 she joined the staff of the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children of the Ministry of Health and passed her MD in 1956. She was appointed consultant paediatrician to the Lady Ridgeway, the Castle Street Hospital for Women and the De Soysa Maternity Home in 1959. She continued to work in the health service until 1973, spending a year as a Fulbright scholar at the Babies Hospital in New York in 1967.

After retiring from the hospital she spent some time in private practice before founding the department of paediatrics at the NCMC in 1985 and becoming their first professor of paediatrics. She was also involved in setting up the Sri Lanka Paediatric Association, later the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians and, from 1962 to 1963, served as their first president. In 1967, four years after the journal first began, she became editor of the Ceylon Journal of Child Health and continued in this role for 36 years, during which time she managed the change of title to Sri Lankan Journal of Child Health and converted it from an annual to a quarterly publication. On resigning from her position in 2003, she became the journal’s first emeritus editor.

Quick to act when she noticed a problem, she initiated the Zonta Service Project in 1983 to provide safe drinking water to thousands of settlers in the Mahawell development area in Kalawewa. When the devastating tsunami struck in 2004, in spite of being 85 years old at the time, she gathered a group of medical specialists and went to Galle, her home area, to provide help.

Her important work was recognised internationally and she was elected to the fellowship of both the Edinburgh College of Physicians and the RCP. The Sri Lanka government gave her the national honour of Vidyajyothi, awarded for exceptional contributions in science and medicine. In 1996, its inaugural year, the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians also gave her a fellowship.

A devout Buddhist all her life, she died at the age of 93.

RCP editor

[Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health; Orations [of the] Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians – both accessed 2 November 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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