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Commemorating Prof. K. N. Seneviratne

Kirthi Nissanka Seneviratne, professor, doctor, physiologist, scholar, educationist and founder director of Sri Lanka's Postgraduate Institute of Medicine died on August 10, 1986. The Physiological Society of Sri Lanka will formally commemorate the man and his work for the 17th successive year today November 22.

The memorial oration will be delivered by Dr. Ashima Anand, a distinguished Indian physiologist. Her subject deals with an aspect of dysfunction of the heart. It was a massive heart attack that killed KNS.

Brilliant

A brilliant student, KNS was an alumnus of Royal College, Colombo, University of Ceylon and University of Edinburgh.

At Edinburgh, his Ph.D. supervisor was Professor David Whitteridge, FRS, who was at that time the last surviving direct pupil of Sir Charles Sherrington, Nobel Laureate, recipient of the Order of Merit, Fellow of the Royal Society and later its President, Waynflete Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford.

Thus KNS had an impeccable academic pedigree.

He graduated MBBS with honours in 1954, joined the Department of Physiology of the Colombo Medical School as a Demonstrator in 1957 and ended up as Professor of Physiology.

In 1974 he was appointed the Founder Director of the Institute of Postgraduate Medicine which transformed itself to the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM). In 1981 he joined the World Health Organisation as a Regional Advisor and worked enthusiastically until his sudden death in 1986.

Family

KNS was the second of the three children of Dr. Robert and Laura Seneviratne. Having qualified as a doctor in the Ceylon Medical College, Dr. Robert Seneviratne proceeded to Edinburgh, Scotland.

There he became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. In due course his son KNS tread the same path to Edinburgh and there acquired not only a Ph.D. but also a charming, intellectually sophisticated Scottish wife, Alison Alexander. It is by her munificence that the KN Seneviratne Oration became an annual event.

Thus KNS was as distinguished socially as he was academically. When someone once commented on the social distinction of his family, KNS who had delightful humour drily remarked, 'Yes but my brother is only a Clerk'.

That was true. His brother, Nihal Seneviratne, was at that time, Clerk of the House of Representatives. What a wonderful brother Nihal has been to KNS, alive and dead.

'Bull'

The odds are a hundred to one that those who have cared to read this blurb this far, would know KNS by his nickname 'Bull'. Many think that Bull acquired his nickname by virtue of his exceptionally tall, powerfully built, majestic physique.

That is not true. The truth is that during his years at Royal College, there were two Seneviratnes in his class, one very clever and the other not so clear.

One day the not-so-clever Seneviratne was called 'Cow' by one of those old-fashioned, child-abusive class teachers. Immediately thereafter the clever Seneviratne came to be called 'Bull'. The name stuck. There is no standing up to the logical rigour of schoolboy reasoning. KNS rejoiced in his nickname.

Physiologist

By common consent KNS was the most distinguished physiologist this country has yet produced. He specialised in the study of aspects of the function of the brain (vision) and nerves (diabetic neuropathy).

The subject is a bit too complicated to expound in a blurb. How I wish I had something like Bull's gift of lucid exposition.

KNS was only 56 when he died. He knew that he had serious coronary artery disease and that smoking was not good for him. But he didn't give it up.

As his friend and contemporary at Edinburgh the distinguished Indian physiologist A. S. Paintal, FRS, said when he delivered the fourth KNS Memorial Oration in 1990, whenever a friend expressed dismay about his smoking in scorn of consequence, he routinely quipped, "whatever will be will be." He knew what he wanted from life.

He knew how to get it. He got it, and was happy. He desperately wished for a quick, sudden exit. He got that too. When death came in the city of Bali, Indonesia, he was listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

If you wish to listen to a commemoration of such a man by a first rate Indian physiologist, you are most welcome to the Lionel Memorial Auditorium at 6, Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 7, at 6.30 p.m. today.

- Professor Carlo Fonseka.

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