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Tuesday, 18 December 2012






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Got around the ‘breast feeding problem’ and more...

She has the unique distinction of being the first woman in the country to earn the Doctorate in Medicine (MD) of the University of Ceylon. At the relatively young age of 40, she was appointed to the Chair of Paediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine, thus becoming the first woman to be appointed to a professorial chair. This week’s Reminiscences of Gold features this remarkable lady, Dr. Priyani Soysa, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics of the University of Colombo.

Dr. Priyani Soysa

“I was born and bred in Moratuwa and I attended the school by the Lunawa lagoon, Princes of Wales College, from the Kindergarten up to the London Matriculation. I had no idea that I would end up doing medicine, but I won a prize in every class, except one year when I had whooping cough. I was also sports captain. We played Tennis against Colombo schools like Visakha, Ladies College, and Bishop’s College, winning some and losing some. We played netball, a rough game with another college in Moratuwa. There I dislocated my right shoulder, which troubled me for some time. So I learnt to manipulate my dislocated shoulder back into its socket. I also did extremely well in the Senior Cambridge with distinctions in every subject except Sinhalese where I got a credit. My father who had a foresight that a knowledge of Sinhala language would be important in the future coaxed me to do both Sinhalese and Latin,” said Dr. Priyani.

“I met my husband (Dr. Ananda Soysa) while I was in the Medical College. We were body partners because at that time we had to dissect the body: the arms, the legs, the chest and brain. And it was a tough time. And when we were juniors the seniors used to throw body parts at us when the demonstrators were not around. On such days our clothes were smelling. We couldn’t even go in the bus but had to walk back to the YWCA hostel. We didn’t have a women’s hostel at that time. There were quite a few of us, five or six medical students, in the YWCA hostel which was a hostel for working women and not for students. There was a lot of noise with music, violins and guitars. We had to study in that environment. The Tennis in the evening was quite a welcome feature.”

Social activities

“I was at the top of the list coming first among the women and getting a first class with distinctions in Medicine, Obstetrics, Gynecology, Pharmacology, and my teachers were wondering what I was going to do. But I selected paediatrics and was awarded a scholarship by the government to proceed to England in 1953 which happened to be the Coronation Year. My husband resigned from the government service and accompanied me. His specialization was ENT Surgery. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in England.”

Upon her return from England, Dr. Priyani was posted to the Jaffna Hospital as Consultant Paediatrician. That was in 1956 when Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s 'Sinhala Only' policy created a stir in Jaffna. “I had to face many black flag demonstrations. Nevertheless I was popular among the patients and people of Jaffna. I participated in many social activities, even singing solos at Christmas time in the church, and made many friends. The women used to shout: “the big lady from the children’s ward.”

“In the market I was charged less for vegetables. I did all sorts of things in Jaffna which didn’t cause any trouble. For instance the so called low caste women were not allowed to wear a jacket and they wore a cloth like our Diyaredda which used to embarrass me inside the ward. I made them wear hospital jackets and there was no protest. That way it was a lot easier for them when nursing their babies.”

Lady Ridgeway Hospital

Ayurvedic practice was really popular in Jaffna at that time and I dispelled their fears of Western medicine. They accepted Western treatment and accepted me and I got on famously till the 1958 riots. I was the only Sinhala doctor North of Anuradhapura and I had to seek refuge. Dr. Valloopillai came to my house and invited me to stay with him and his wife. His father- in-law was the MP for Kytes. Nobody knew that I was there; only the hospital telephone operator knew but didn’t divulge information to anyone. I was pregnant at that time; my husband was returning from the high seas. Finally, we came in the last plane that left Jaffna because the Palali airport was bombed after our plane left. It was a frightening experience.”

Dr. Priyani was next posted to the new hospital in Ratnapura. “I went there with my new born baby. By that time my husband had arrived. He was sent as ENT surgeon and I, as paediatrician. Other doctors were surgeon Navaratna and obstetrician Goonetilleke. We polished the floors and we installed ourselves and inaugurated the new hospital in Ratnapura. That was quite an experience. People adored us. In fact there was a road that was named as “Priyani Soysa Mawatha.” That was the extent to which the people in that area had accepted us. I would say that had I come for politics I would have won the Ratnapura seat. We were there for five years. We had a lovely bungalow. Two of my children were born in that house. I had home deliveries. My husband acted as doctor in the house. One child was born on my husband’s birthday with Kiribath on the table.”

After Ratnapura, her next station was the Kurunegala Hospital where she made an important discovery – a few cases of dengue. “I collected data and presented them at a meeting in Colombo in February 1966, but people did not believe me at that time. We did not have facilities to isolate the virus at the time. A few months later, a daughter of two medical consultants died of Dengue. It was only after that incident that people realized Dengue had come to Sri Lanka.”

She was appointed to the Chair of Paediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine in 1966 and she held this post till her retirement in 1991. While teaching at the Faculty of Medicine, she also continued to work at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital. “I served there for 25 years which was at that time the longest time anyone had been at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital, the largest children’s hospital in the country.”

Dr. Priyani devoted her entire working life for the welfare of mothers and children. She had first hand experience of seeing malnourished children and mothers. She did not confine her work merely to treating patients but tried to eliminate the root causes of many problems such as malnutrition and infectious diseases. She worked with the WHO in imposing restrictions on the advertising of infant formula milk.

In order to promote breast-feeding, she campaigned with others to increase the period of maternity leave for working mothers. She also helped formulate a national policy on breast feeding. “I am also happy to say that my special interest in nutrition took me up to the UN highest committee on nutrition. I was an advisor to the UN Subcommittee on nutrition, and chairperson of maternal and child nutrition.” As Professor of Paediatrics, she was responsible for training a large number of paediatricians in the country.

Looking back on her life, there is no doubt that she was able to make a difference in the lives of others. It was with a sense of fulfillment that she said: “My husband is the longest living surgeon today in Sri Lanka, and he is 91 years old. We have been married for 61 years. We have four girls. We never pressed them to be doctors. They chose their own disciplines and they also chose their partners in life. And today we have a home where the eldest married a Buddhist, the second married a Hindu, and the youngest married a Muslim. My husband a Buddhist and myself a Christian and the children of mixed faiths. We live peacefully in this home. We have four grandchildren. The way forward for this country has been demonstrated by the two of us who have served this country faithfully. That is our happiness.”


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