1) Prof. Thambipillai Varagunam:
A medical academic with a vision
When I was a medical student in the seventies, the majority of my teachers were conservative in their approach to imparting knowledge. Although they instilled the values and ethos required of a future doctor, they were reluctant to embrace the changes to develop the students nor did they make any attempt to nurture enquiring minds!
Prof Varagunam, however, was an exception for he was very enthusiastic to explore new ways of learning advocated by Western academics. His enthusiasm was augmented by what he saw and learnt in Illinois, USA where he obtained his Master’s Degree in Medical Education.
He was a visionary, one of its first kind in the mid-sixties, perhaps, better described as the doyen of medical education when he set foot in Peradeniya as a lecturer in Medicine.
On February 7, 2018 generations of past medical students lined up in Kandy to pay their last respects as the mortal remains of the late Prof Varagunam lay at the funeral parlour.
A cross-section of the population from many parts of Sri Lanka and across the globe mourned the passing away of the gentle giant who dedicated his lifetime serving the Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya as Assistant Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and then, Professor of Medicine, the post he held until 1979.
His achievements during this period were legendary. While Chairing the division of Medicine, he took over the medical education department from Prof Bibile, bringing under his wings Drs Jayawickremarajah and Palitha Abeykoon who too made their own mark in the specialty.
Thambipillai Varagunam was born in Kallady Upodai, in the Eastern Region, on November 8, 1930, and the only child of the late Mr Thambipllai and Mrs Sellathangam Thambipillai. The former was an Assistant Medical Practitioner and a well-known philanthropist.
Young Varagunam received his early education at Govt Central College, Batticaloa, and moving to Royal College, Colombo where he excelled in academics and sports, Rugby being his forte.
Entering the University of Ceylon to read medicine in 1950, he qualified in 1955 taking up training posts in Colombo North after which he left for UK to further his training.
On completing the training with a membership of the Royal College of Physicians, Varagunam returned to Colombo to join the Department of Medicine as a lecturer.
His return coincided with the establishment of the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya which he chose as his base.
When the late Prof Macan Markar relinquished his duties at Peradeniya the then Vice-Chancellor of the University, the late Sir Nicholas Attygalle hand picked Varagunam as the person to Chair the Department. Varagunam reciprocated the trust Sir Nicholas placed on him with his exemplary leadership and commitment. The modernization of medical education resonated well with the expectations of his students.
He married Thayalam Sabaratnam, daughter of the late Dr Sabaratnam in 1962. She has been a tower of strength to him for the last 55 years.
The Prof was a very compassionate man extremely popular among all who came in contact with him. Sudharma Vidyatilake, his former trainee house officer and my contemporary, currently a consultant haematologist recalls the days she enjoyed sumptuous meals prepared by Mrs Varagunam at their house where the juniors would often gather. Apparently, this was a routine the Prof would carry out for all his trainees.
Prof Varagunam retired from the University in 1979, and then served the WHO as a consultant in Tropical Diseases for a period of ten years based in Geneva.
Thereafter,when he returned to Kandy, the Government sought his help to establish the medical school in Batticaloa. This was a great opportunity for the Prof to contribute to his birthplace, as the Chancellor of the Eastern Province University.
The Prof never opted for private practice, but was more focussed on rendering necessary help to the institution he served, and promoting the activities of the Peradeniya Medical School Alumni Association of which he was a patron.
Troubled by peripheral neuritis he had to cut down his activities although he remained intellectually sharp retaining his sense of humour until he was called to rest.
Philanthropy was in his genes, and he donated vast acres of ancestrally owned land in Karativu for a hospital to be built for the local residents. In addition, part of his property was acquired by the state for the Eastern University complex.
He was down to earth and simple in his ways, and was also a man of good humour.
On February 4, 2018, he succumbed to complications arising from prostate cancer.
Fate was such that as the nation woke up to commemorate the independence, from colonial rule, his students, colleagues and patients began to grieve the loss of a great physician, a teacher, mentor and a true friend who touched several hearts.
An ebullient clinician, academic and a gentleman always displaying a pleasant disposition, Prof Varagunam enjoyed the company of his old students. I was very privileged to meet him often in the last 15 years.
Last year, the Prof stuck a jubilant mood on the day I touched on his ‘alma mater’ days at Royal as it was of mutual interest for us. It was Rugby he wanted to discuss! He told me how he hooked the ball in 1948 to help Royal beat the Trinity Lions scoring 6-3 on the first leg and then 8-6 on the second leg, overpowering the Lions again at their own grounds in Asgiriya to wrest the Bradby Shield.
Our last meeting was at his daughter’s residence in July 2017 in the UK. He returned to Kandy in Aug 2017.
He leaves behind his wife Thayalam, three daughters Mira, Radha and Sita and four grandchildren.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ― Rabindranath Tagore.
May his soul rest in peace.
– A grateful student 1972 -1976
(2) Dr A J M J B Walalawela
Retired Director of Quarantine Services
Ministry of Health. Srilanka
1950 – 2017
“Nirvana is not the blowing out of the candle.
It is the extinguishing of the flame because the day is come“- Rabindranath Tagore
Walale, as he was known to his friends, was a charismatic soft-spoken young medical student when we first met him at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry & Veterinary Sciences within the University Campus at Peradeniya on the 18th Jan1972, the date he referred to as the ‘jour de gloire’ in his editorial for the souvenir published at the Reunion in Oct 2016.
On being awarded his medical degree the young Dr Walawela was posted to the General Hospital Badulla where he undertook his early training followed by a tenure as a medical officer at Minipe and then at Deltota in the central province. Towards the end of 1983, he travelled to the Sultanate of Oman for a brief spell as a general practitioner returning to Srilanka betrothed to Nilani Ratnayake, a school teacher whom he married on the 19th Sept 1985.
Attracted to the speciality of medical administration he took up the position of Deputy Director at the University Hospital at Peradeniya serving the people of Kandy his place of birth. He took special responsibility for the education of those professions allied to medicine especially the area of nursing. He was then promoted as the Regional Director of Medical Services for the Monaragela district ensuring the smooth functioning of government institutions. He was a skilful and fair but a firm administrator with an affable personality whose admirable qualities held him in good stead to uphold the ethos contained within the national policy of providing a free medical service to the people of SriLanka.
He was subsequently appointed by the Ministry of Health as the Director of NationalQuarantine Services taking charge of preventive health with the main focus on the ports of entry playing a vital role at the peak of the Avian A HIN1 flu epidemic. He represented Sri Lanka at the ASEAN conference held in Manilla in 2009 in the Philippines; chairing some of the plenaries addressing the challenges posed by the Avian flu epidemic in the South East Asian region. He was also called in to manage the crisis that followed the scandal in connection with the importation of ‘digestive’ biscuits from India around the same time.
Walale retired from the national health service in 2010 at the compulsory retirement age of 60. Being a workaholic he was unable to decline an offer as the company medical director for a private sector establishment, the Ihala Kothmale Plant, based in Talawakalle where he spent the next two years by which time he has spent most of his working life serving the nation away from Kandy where his family was based. Failing health at this stage meant that he was unable
to continue with this job. He returned to Kandy to spend his remaining days at Katugastota in his family home with his wife and children.
Jayananda Bandara Walalawela was born on the 09th of November 1950 in Kandy to the late Mr and the late Mrs Jayasekera. He was one of six children. Mr Jayasekera was a direct descendant of Dingirirala who dwelling in the village of Walalawela in the Hangurangetha district rebelled along with Puran Appu & Gongale Godabanda fighting the foreign dominance by the British Raj in the mid-eighteenth century
He received his primary education in Kandy at Vidyartha College moving on to St Sylvester’s with academic achievements at both schools. Walale entered the University of Ceylon as it was then called in 1972 opting to read medicine at the historic and scenic Peradeniya campus.
A very modest man of ethical principles focussed on simple living he defied many of his contemporaries during the 1983 civil unrest and the ensuing turmoil often referred to as the black July, treating the victims of violence with compassion no matter which ethnic background they belonged to! Something his son Niluksha recalls with pride.
An avid reader, a linguist with an aptitude for Sinhala, English and French, Walale was a great admirer and follower of the late Prof Ediriweera Sarathchandra, the renowned playwright and dramatist. Gifted with a liberal mind and incisive analytical skills he was a caring father and a loving husband never prescriptive towards his children. Daughter Chamalka reminisces how Walale discouraged them from sitting their year 5 scholarship exams for he believed that children
should learn but not be compelled to compete at this young age; a view that is shared by many contemporary western educationalists promoting equality.
Walale was a grateful servant of his alma maters actively contributing to the OBA functions. He had an interest in Tennis, Rugby and Cricket volunteering as a sports medical officer to various organisations. He accompanied the SAARC team to India in the early nineties as its medical officer. He wrote to the newspapers in his spare time and also organised several blood donation camps.
Although a quite & an unassuming introvert he was a raconteur of class fondly remembered by his batch mates as the great networker who brought them together to Kandy in October 2016 to celebrate a reunion 40 years since graduation, a remarkable feat given that this batch is now scattered all around the globe. Many of his friends will recall the trouble he took to attend the event with Nilani despite his poor health for he wanted to be among us celebrating the big day.
Little did we realise that it was going to be our last meeting in person!
A nominal Buddhist but with an altruistic attitude towards humanity, Dr Walalawela’s legacy could be described in the words of Martin Luther King Jr who once said “The quality, not the longevity, of ones’ life, is what is important”
May his soul rest in peace.
Dr Jayananda Bandara Walalawela was called to rest on the 25th Dec 2017 and is survived by his son Niluksha, daughter Chamalka and wife Nilani
Dr Chandra Abrew Dr Gamini Jayasekera Dr Nanda Wahalawatte Dr Sathi Ariyanayagam