The iconic Dr. Anthonis

It was somewhere around 1970, plus or minus a year or two, on the day Dr. Anthonis was retiring from the government health service, that my editor, Denzil Pieris, suggested that I interview the eminent surgeon. Then editing the Ceylon Observer and the Sunday Observer, Denzil had an uncanny nose for news. But those abilities were not really necessary to know that Dr. Anthonis would make good copy at the closing of one chapter of his legendary life.

Predictably, finding some time for a cub reporter from the Observer that day was a problem for the good doctor but he was as accessible then as he was even at the tail-end of his life. However inconvenient, he always found time for people and there I was, sitting in the living room of his Dharmapala Mawatha home, talking to Dr. Anthonis on a range of subjects including books on Ceylon - he had a fine collection which, if I remember right, was one of the few things locked in a glass-fronted case in his consulting chambers – and an experience he had hearing what he believed was a devil bird one rainy night on a lonely road in the Kelani Valley.

But I digress. What I want to stress here is one remark he made that evening which remains indelibly etched in my mind. ``I owe everything I have achieved to the poor people of this country,’’ he said. ``It was by operating on them in government hospitals that I acquired and honed my surgical skills and the experience gained thereby made me what I am.’’

He said it simply and matter-of-factly. His genius as a surgeon was all too well known. He had been a star pupil at St. Peter’s College and the Ceylon Medical College carrying the most coveted prizes. His subsequent career as a practicing surgeon had dazzled not only our small country but also other countries as well. Yet there he was, crediting his skills to the experience he gained operating on non-paying patients in government hospitals. That was a measure of the man.

Other things I learned that day included the fact that he had a remarkable memory. He had received a number of letters on the occasion of his retirement and he brought a sheaf of them into his living room that day. He gave me one, written in what I think of as the prescription handwriting of a medical practitioner and asked me to read it aloud. The handwriting was so bad that I kept stumbling trying to decipher the words. But he prompted me from his chair across the room. Having read that letter once, he virtually knew every word in it!

Dr. Anthonis knew a great deal about many things but he never flaunted his knowledge. Years after he had retired, I was warded at the Nawaloka Hospital and having found me there, he would sometimes drop into my room for a brief chat, generally at night time, after seeing his patient/s in the ward. During one of those visits I asked him a question about Buddhism and the next day he was back with the photocopy of a letter he had received from Ramsay Wettimuni, a noted scholar on Abidhamma. Dr. Anthonis had posed a question similar to mine and Wettimuni had given an explanation. He had followed up with a letter saying that somebody like Dr. Anthonis deserved a fuller exposition which he set out. The doctor had this letter on file and he took the trouble to dig it out, make a photocopy and bring it to me at the hospital.

It is not very well known that Dr. Anthonis had a doctor brother, Dr. P.J. Anthonis, who ran a nursing home in Negombo. He predeceased his brother. It was at that funeral house that Dr. P.R. Anthonis related this story about his brother whom he said on that occasion ``was a better man and a better doctor than I.’’ It appeared that in the course of a busy practice, he (Dr. P.R.) encountered an unwed pregnant woman whose predicament deeply moved him. He wrote a letter to his brother asking him to help her to have her baby and render whatever assistance possible.

Some weeks later the doctor received a letter from his brother saying that he had done everything that was necessary, the baby had been delivered and the problem sorted out. ``He ended that letter,’’ Dr. Anthonis chuckled, ``by telling me `don’t do it again!’

He had a fund of good stories and I will close this anecdotal account of one of the most remarkable men of our times with one of them. As many people know, Dr. Anthonis’ father was a well known distributor of kerosene oil owning a number of bullock-drawn tanker carts. Many of the carters were Malayalees and one fairly oldish man had taken unto himself a much younger woman whom the doctor said ``my mother hated.’’

Be that as it may, in those days women were not allowed to run the kerosene kadeys which were a male preserve. Anthonis senior had given one of these boutiques to the woman, his carter’s mistress/concubine and in due course he was sent for by the British boss of the Shell Company. As he spoke no English, he took his son, PR, to interpret for him.

The interview has gone somewhat like this in Dr. Anthonis’ narrative.

Anthonis Snr.: I know why you have sent for me, but before we discuss that matter, may I ask you a few questions, Sir?

Shell boss: Go ahead.

Anthonis: Where do you do your shopping?

Boss: Cargills, Millers, Elephant House.

Anthonis: When you last went shopping, who served you and what did you buy? (This was an age when the big shops had European sales girls)

Boss: A young lady. I bought some butter, bacon and groceries.

Anthonis: You are a very big man in the business world in this country. You go to the big shops for your needs and you are served by an English lady. The people who come to our kerosene boutiques buy a quarter of a bottle of kerosene oil, sometimes less, for a couple of cents. If you can be served in Cargills and Millers by a European lady, why not the poor people of this country by a carter’s wife?

Boss (Turning to P.R. Anthonis): Tell your father he has made his point.

Just a few weeks before his death, one of my colleagues in the Upali Group asked me how old Dr. Anthonis was. I knew he was in his late nineties, but still going to most places he was invited to. My friend thought he had crossed the century mark, which I knew was not correct.

``Why don’t you ring him up and ask him?’’ I said. ``You do it,’’ he responded and I made the call. The doctor said he was 98-years.

``I hope you will score your century,’’ I said.

``Those things you can never be sure of,’’ he replied.

He was just short of 99-years when he passed away on Dec. 17. Brilliant surgery was just one facet of this remarkable man. He was truly an icon. This country was fortunate to have him for a son.

No wonder his youngest brother Lionel’s wife, Anne, once told a group of friends that she likes going to the Sri Lanka Cancer Society because that was one place where Anne Anthonis appeared on top of P.R. Anthonis in the boards bearing the names of the society’s life members!

Manik de Silva

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