Lanka’s sharpest scalpel

If as they say, a surgeon’s hands are defined at birth, the midwife who delivered Dr. P.R. Anthonis must have known he was destined for greatness. For over 60 years, this noble doctor has stridden the medical profession of this country like a colossus, and will one day leave behind the legacy of both surgical genius and a kindly manner best befitting a medical practitioner. The Nation sat down for a chat with the aging but robust surgeon now in his 95th year, to learn more about his lifelines….

By Thimali Ranaweera
He is a colossus in the community of medical profession, a gift from the past millennium and is considered a god by his patients. The name of Dr. P R Anthonis would be immortal. Regarded as an angel of mercy among his patients, Dr. Anthonis, has carried out over 10,000 surgeries to date. Having performed every kind of surgery, curing ailments from head to toe, at a time when there were none who were able to, the dexterous use of his hands has healed and rescued many.
Dr. Polwattearachchige Romiel Anthonis, the oldest practicing surgeon in Asia and the second oldest in the world –(Dr Fedor Uglow from St. Petersburg, Russia is the oldest, aged 101)- is still performing surgeries at the Ratnam Hospital, Colombo. Born on January 21, 1911 he is just passing the 95th year of his healthy life. He is the second born of 16 children in his family.
I felt privileged to spend a few minutes of time with him. With honour and respect, I got closer to him to listen to his precious words spoken with pride and innocence. His memory still remains sharp though he is very senior in his years. When I posed him a question, how much of contentment have you got from your long period as a medical practitioner; he replied with an innocent smile, “I cannot explain that in words, you may be able to imagine it, as I have worked on patients for nearly 67 years”.
When I asked him, when you were a child, did you have the intention of becoming a doctor one day, he assertively told me - “No, I just wanted to become a civil servant, because my brother had the ambition of becoming a doctor. As my father could not afford such money for both of us, I prepared my mind to become a civil servant. But my destiny has changed that intention.”
The revered surgeon proudly showed me his past journal which contains diagrams and explanations of the surgical procedures he has performed in every part of the human body with their date and time. Dr. Anthonis has performed minor and major surgery on the brain, gynaecology, chest, thyroid, pancreas, prostate and gall bladder for instance. His last operation was carried out on the day before I went to meet him at his residence.
Speaking about his family, Dr. Anthonis said that his father was a carpenter who shortly thereafter became a successful businessman. He was an agent for kerosene oil in Bambalapitiya, Wellawatta and Dehiwala. He describes his mother as an ‘intelligent housewife.’ His son Mr. Ravindralal Anthonis, is a Wild Life Specialist and a Wild Life Photographer in profession and is also involved in UNESCO. The surgeon’s son is also an author of several publications. He has two grand children, a granddaughter who is now married and a grandson who graduated at Keil University in London and is employed at Seylan Bank. But that’s not all, the veteran surgeon has a four year old great grand daughter as well!
Excellent in studies
The lad Anthonis, having a passion for medicine, entered Medical College in 1930. There he was placed first in all the examinations and walked away with every available medal and prize. In 1945, he won a government scholarship to obtain Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) certification in United Kingdom. He was the first Sri Lankan and the only one of a group of eight doctors that year, to pass both the primary and final fellowship in the first sitting. In 1947, when he returned to his homeland, he was appointed consultant surgeon to the National Hospital.
Dr. Anthonis in his own inimitable style brought a different perspective to the office of Chancellor of the Colombo University, having held that office for almost 22 years. He truly reflected the bloom of eternal youth, moving companionably with peace and friendliness among the University community and showing his genuine concern for them in their difficult times. He has been the Chancellor of Ruhuna University for nearly five years as well. His widespread knowledge in Commerce is also equally convincing as he was founder Director of Seylan Bank.
He was able to manage the time in his hectic life, being Chairman of the Sri Lanka Medical Council, the Founder President of the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka, the President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association and Editor of the Ceylon Medical Journal. He also had time to teach, train and to participate in both undergraduate and post graduate examinations in surgery.
Besides such contributions to the academic and professional requirements of the surgical community, he was also an active trade unionist, being President of the Medical Officers Trade Union and Association of Medical Specialists. In 1964 he travelled the length and breadth of the country to canvass support from the doctors and later won the right to private practice to supplement the meagre incomes granted to government medical practitioners.
The Governors General, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Mahanayakes, Archbishops, Ambassadors, singers, film stars, bankers, professors, doctors, lawyers and all kinds of professionals have been healed by his surgical skillful hands. Explaining his complex surgeries, Dr. Anthonis said the surgery he performed for the Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was naturally the most exciting one he had ever experienced during his long and distinguished career.
Be it day or night, weekend or holiday, Dr. Anthonis never refuses to see a patient in distress as it is the policy of his profession. His advice to younger surgeons has been - “respond to urgent calls, or you will never be forgiven, if it is an urgent surgical problem”.
For his numerable patients, his kindness has often been more of a source of strength than his surgical prowess. It was his gentle tones and kindly manner that Dr. Anthonis is most loved for, although his skills in the operating theatre are legendary. He spoke proudly of his student, Professor Carlo Fonseka, who has praised his teacher’s life in a nice article recently.
Unsolicited Tributes
I got the great opportunity to pore over the numerous articles, tributes, commendations and letters and poems of appreciations, he has received from Sri Lanka and overseas which praise his diagnostic acumen and the meticulousness in the operation theatre. He is one of only 12 leading surgeons of the world to be asked to address the International Congress of Surgeons in Tokyo and the only Asian to receive this honour. His kinship with Japan made him to function as the Founder President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Vice Patron the Sri Lanka Japan Friendship Society and the Sri Lanka Japan Cultural Centre. He is the first Sri Lankan to receive a foreign honour, which was the Sacred Treasure of Japan. He was conferred the highest national honour for a civilian- the Deshamanya title-by the President of Sri Lanka in 1986. He has also been awarded the ‘Vishva Prasadini’ by the Prime Minister, the highest universal award of the Open International University of Medicina Alternativa, the Raja Guru’, and the ‘Salyawaidya Siromani’ by the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Kelaniya in 2002.
A silver casket was presented to him in 2003 by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ‘in appreciation of 67 years of unparalleled service to the health of the nation’. The accompanying handwritten card from the President reads, “With undying admiration and deep affection.”
His most recent honour is the award titled ‘Pride of the Medical Profession’ bestowed upon him in October this year by the College of General Practitioners of Sri Lanka in recognition of his committed service to all Sri Lankans extending for almost 70 years. It is the first time in the country’s history that such a unique award has been presented on behalf of the medical community.
Professor A H. Sheriffdeen, reading a citation at a felicitation ceremony in 2000, said fittingly of Dr Anthonis, “His surgical prowess is legendary. His stamina and enthusiasm for work is boundless. A colossus of such stature may never stride the professional community again.”
The reminiscence of his wonderful partner Mrs. Anthonis who died after 58 years of their marriage still brings tears in his eyes. “She was a fortune. She was the only daughter of M.G. Perera’s company in Kithulgala. Her wealth and my earning made a top income to our peaceful family”, he said.
In his words he said, his childhood and youth was mainly guided by his grandmother who lived 106 years. Dr. Anthonis has the intention, that daughters should be educated but they should mainly be responsible at household activities which recalls his mother’s life style.
Speaking about the current medical background in Sri Lanka, he said that it has improved a lot now. “There are more girls than boys in the medical faculty at present. Things must change as the world is being modernised. “In the past, the ladies were very peaceful. They used to stay at home. All the things came home and they never even had to go out shopping. My mother had never met any doctors to give birth to any of us. Only the mid wife took the responsibility”.
Taking more than one hour of his valuable time, as there was a patient waiting for treatment as well, I got up from my chair saying good bye and wishing many more long and healthy years to a man who has given so many people in this country a new lease of life.