Babies’ screams rent the air. The women, some
heavily pregnant and others after successful deliveries, may
look anxious, weak and/or radiant. Even more anxious may be the
young men. When they pass through the door of the De Soyza
Hospital for Women, looking over them all is Charles de Soyza,
his picture garlanded these days for the 125th anniversary of
the hospital that falls on December 13.
He’s seen a lot of babies, the hospital being
the second oldest maternity hospital in Asia (the oldest is in
India). The De Soyza Lying-in-Home (as it was first named) was
set up in 1879, initiated by Sir Charles Henry de Soyza by
personal donation of property and funds for women who are
deprived of the facility of safe care in hospital during
History records that royal patronage ensured
free health care for our people while maintaining the status of
women in high esteem, says Prof. Harsha Seneviratne of the
academic unit of the hospital. With the advent of colonial rule
in its maturity under the British a couple of hundred years ago,
this ancient wisdom was overrun by western type health care. The
De Soyza Hospital belongs to this later introduction, as do the
majority of health services in the country, and has a special
function of assisting in the delivery of babies safely.
Most of the maternity cases at this tertiary
care institution are high risk cases, and among those born there
may be many who battled through birth and grew up to do
exemplary service to the country. The hospital authorities do
not at present have a figure for the total number of births in
the hospital from its inception in 1879, but this figure may
well have reached a million births already.
Starting with 52 births in 1879, the hospital
now records 13,000 to 15,000 births of which around 5000 are
caesarean births per year. The first caesarean birth to be
performed in Sri Lanka was in the De Soyza Hospital in 1905.
In 1879, it had 22 beds, 433 in 1947 and after
its branch hospital, the Castle Street Hospital for Women was
set up in 1950 to reduce the burden on the De Soyza Hospital,
the number of beds has been reduced to 343. The hospital has ten
The present number of beds, says the oldest
serving matron at the hospital, Chief Nursing Officer B. P. J.
Seneviratne, is sufficient—for the number of indoor patients
only rarely exceeds it. In some wards, they may have to
temporarily bunk on a mat, but this is not for long, she said.
Seneviratne said what the hospital needed was quarters for the
nurses and midwives; quite obviously, the nursing staff must be
effectively on call.
Many women from Colombo Central, Wattala,
Kelaniya, Biyagama, Negombo and Peliyagoda areas attend the
hospital, acting director of the hospital Dr. B. G. A.
Vidyathilaka said. Some high risk cases are also sent to the
hospital from as far as Monaragala and Trincomalee.
However, it’s more than a maternity hospital.
It’s also a hospital for women’s health, and provides training
in midwifery (1909), nursing (1916) and in Obstetrics and
Gynaecology for medical students (1915). The De Soyza
Lying-in-Home commenced the first operating theatre in 1917 and
the first Ante Natal Clinic in Asia was set up there in 1921
(incidentally, the first in the world was set up just eleven
years before in England). Its first medical superintendent was
Dr. (later Sir) Marcus Fernando, appointed in 1887.
Dr. Vidyathilaka said the hospital needs more
sophisticated technology. "For instance, the Dopplar scan for
which we have just received funds (approximately Rs. 10 million)
can examine the flow of blood to the baby inside the womb.
Through this we can determine whether the baby is at risk of
dying inside the womb. This will be set up next year."
"As the De Soyza hospital provides training for
postgraduates of the PGIM in Obs and Gyn, we also need to
provide them training in Laparoscopic surgery," Vidyathilaka
said. Through this, he said, doctors could not only look inside
the body by insertion of the Laparoscope, but also carry out
surgery without opening up the body. Among the government
hospitals, Kalubowila and Castle Street have this technology, he
"We also need a third operation theatre for
emergency surgery, an anaesthetic machine and the services of a
physician within the hospital. At present, we have to send for a
physician from the resident doctors of the General Hospital.
This is inconvenient and causes delays in treatment,"
The De Soyza Hospital for Women won the Taiki
Akimoto 5S Award in 2003 for Best 5S Implementation in the
service sector. Awarded by the Japan Sri Lanka Technology and
Cultural Association, "5S" stands for clearing up, organising
orderliness, cleanliness, standardising, and training and
disciplining. This message is put on nurses’ notice boards in
the hospital. "We won this award due to the hard work of our
director, Dr. V. S. P. Pannila, who has headed the hospital for
the last ten years," Dr. Vidyathilaka said. The De Soyza
Hospital was also declared a "Baby Friendly Hospital" by UNICEF
and the Government of Sri Lanka in 1992.
Dr. Vidyathilaka said he did not know of any
well-known personalities who had been born there, when asked.
This may be an interesting aspect, perhaps this data may be
revealed in the study of the available statistics of child
births at the De Soyza Hospital that the Japanese government has
agreed to fund. "In well maintained records at the hospital of
births, you find all the information of births and their details
since the 1920s," Director, Tertiary Service, P. A. Maheepala
Dr. Pannila, director of the hospital who is at
present on leave, said they had planned to look into this aspect
by advertising in the papers for all those who had been born in
the hospital, or know of people who were born there, to come
forward. It is possible, she said, that even someone born around
1915 in the hospital is still alive, s/he may be the oldest
living person born in the hospital.
The celebrations for the 125th anniversary are
on a somewhat lower key than planned. A three-day medical
exhibition, seminar for doctors, nurses and midwives and book
souvenir had been planned, but following Dr. Pannila’s leave of
absence pending an inquiry, the celebrations are to be on a
considerably lower scale.
The hospital will issue a stamp and first day
cover today (December 11) to commemorate its anniversary. It
will also commemorate Sir Charles de Soyza, who has done a noble
service for the people by initiating four other hospitals as
well, namely, the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, and the
Panadura, Lunawa and Marawila hospitals. The De Soyza hospital
must also commemorate all those who have served the hospital
with dedication, from attendant to midwife to nurse and to all
the specialists and consultants who have served the hospital by
placing the patient before self.