Colombo Telegraph

Essays Of A Lifetime By Professor Carlo Fonseka

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

There was a time when science was just one endeavor among many for the great scientists of the world. For example, Isaac Newton was a true polymath – a celebrated master of astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, physics and theology1. Another polymath was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was an Oxford mathematician, Anglican theologian, musician, author, publisher and political scientist to whom is attributed the electoral system of proportional representation which is presently the subject of raging debates in Sri Lanka and a matter of personal interest to me as I labour at the Election Commission in Sri Lanka.

Science now, however, is so specialized with small incremental advances that there are few polymaths today. Carlo Fonseka (MBBS (First Class), University of Ceylon; Ph D, University of Edinburgh; Emeritus Professor of Physiology at the University of Ceylon (now Colombo)) is exception – engaging in medicine, management of public bodies, theology, music, left-wing politics and many other things, and bringing these to the public through op-ed pieces, and radio and television talk shows.

‘Essays Of A Lifetime‘ By Professor Carlo Fonseka – Publisher: S. Godage & Brothers (Private) Ltd (2016)

The book under review consists of a collected volume of Fonseka’s selected writings and speeches over a lifetime on diverse topics such as medicine, science, philosophy and ethics, religion, economics, politics, education, the arts, the biographies he has written and his travel experiences. The selection has 34 essays written between 1971 and 2014. Of particular note is the first chapter, appropriately titled ‘To err was fatal’1, wherein his honesty Fonseka details the five deaths he attributes to his erroneous interventions, where it is clear that he is being too hard on himself. Recent studies in the US showing that ‘iatrogentic damage (defined as a state of ill-health or adverse effect resulting from medical treatment) is the third leading cause of death in the US, after heart disease and cancer’2 prove Fonseka to be the incorrigible iconoclast he is for speaking of truths that other doctors are not comfortable with.

The book has been positively reviewed before3 as is natural for one from a much-loved public personality. I do not wish to detail the book and take away the thrills of reading it. What I will focus on is Fonseka the man. For that is relevant to understanding what he writes and benefit from the lessons his life offers to us.

Fonseka graduated in medicine from the University of Ceylon and earned his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral work on how the pituitary gland puts out growth hormones has become the stuff of textbooks. Two of his papers have each been cited over 100 times.

Greatness in life involves the ability to communicate. Almost all great men evince this truth. Most successful men in Sri Lanka are no exceptions and products of the church and her schools which gave them their skills. To cite one striking example, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was a product of Anglican education. Most public spokesmen of the LTTE were Tamil Christians although for its membership the LTTE was rarely able to draw from Christians.

Likewise, Fonseka is a complete product of the Roman Catholic Church and her St Joseph’s College, Colombo. His versatility with the English language is such that I have met a doctor who a generation later preserves his handwritten notes on physiology that he took down as Fonseka lectured, as a monumental work of literature. Around the year 2004, we shared the same office while being members of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka and, in the absence of his secretary, I had the pleasure as his friend of typing his articles as he dictated. They were always perfect on the first go. (Unfortunately, the privileges of high-up government service had then prevented him from learning the computer. It now appears that he has become computerate, though not to the degree that he is literate.)

Fonseka is a man who is seen reading a different book each time one meets him, and can recite passages from books he read long ago. I rate him Sri Lanka’s best prose writer today. His literary skills brought him the editorship of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in the late 1960s. He was also elected the President of the Section on Medical Sciences of the Association in 1986. His Presidential Address on the subject of human violence attracted the attention of the Head of State, who procured and perused the script.

However, communication skills alone are not enough for greatness. The absence of taboos is another dimension of greatness. For example, in his stark honesty, Fonseka once confessed to me of how his conjugal engagements early into marriage in his house officers’ quarters inordinately delayed him from visiting a patient in the ward. In his linguistic dexterity with command of the English language, he put it so elegantly whereas from another man it might have seemed crude vulgarity. It is that attitude and skill of his that gave the world the privilegeof reading how medical negligencedoes lead to deaths even from caring,ethical doctors.

The medical school could not keep Fonseka engaged in the pedestrian activities of a university where today we4:

  • Split what can be meaningful papers into small inane bits to play the numbers game (where administrators count papers because in the specialized world of science they cannot judge quality and depth through actually reading the papers and therefore just count papers for assessment).
  • Have journals which will publish anything for a fee, and clever academics have created so many citation indexes that make a mockery of journal evaluations.
  • See university administrations claiming that grant money is important as research because, in reality, overheads give them the best offices in a university.
  • Recognize even university ranking is subject to gaming.
  • Every metric to measure quality is countered by clever academics by another metric they invent to cheat the system.

I am sure Fonseka saw this deterioration of the university ethos early and left behind his high-powered research in physiology to work on more important things like superstitions, politics and religion. By far his most successful endeavour is his world-famous demolition of the myths behind fire-walking. Drawing from my upcoming textbook5: ‘Carlo Fonseka became most famous for his scientific elucidation and personal demonstration of how fire-walking is done by Buddhist and Hindu devotees who walk across embers without burning themselves.’ He starred in a British documentary where he fire-walked, an area where others feared to tread and had come a cropper by fire-walking to show that it can be done by anyone. In the process they had burnt their soles badly.

To demonstrate that there is nothing religious, Fonseka and his team deliberately downed arrack (the local brew) and pork (which devotees abstain from to acquire spiritual power to do the magical walk) before successfully fire-walking in front of British TV cameras with British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark watching ( 1391344/fire-walk-by-prof-carlo-fonseka).

He came out with the rules of how it is done – walking fast without allowing the soles to heat enough to reach ignition point to burn the flesh, and making the rectangular fire bed wide to make it seem big while the length one walks across is narrow, thereby giving the impression of walking across a large bed of embers, etc. He showed that the thick soles of the fire walkers who never use footwear also helped.

Fonseka’s forays into politics, however, were a disaster because, although he acted with integrity, his associates did not. As a member of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samasamaja Party (LSSP), Fonseka and his LSSP friends under the late N. M. Perera, did Tamils proud by standing up for Tamil rights and parity of status for the Tamil language with the Sinhalese language. However, as the LSSP realized that the policy was not winning them votes, they abandoned their noble ideals. Fonseka had to lapse into silence.

As the political culture in Sri Lanka deteriorated, he withdrew into religion and music, and cultivated a new public persona to match. Whether for better or worse I am unable to decide. He completed an M A degree in Buddhism. Initiated into Sinhalese music at St Joseph’s College, he has made a name for himself as a popular musician and one of his lyrics is now sung at Sinhalese weddings as the bride goes away. A dirge he composed was included in an award-winning Sinhalese movie.

In 2005, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, widow of the slain leader Vijaya Kumaratunga (whose mother was Fonseka’s first cousin) was rooting for her brother Anura Bandaranaike to succeed her as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader, while Mahinda Rajapakse staked his own claim. Fonseka inclined towards Rajapakse. In 2004, he wrote a newspaper piece on the Rajapakses of Ruhuna, which is among the essays re-printed in this book.

Again later as the LSSP alliance with the Rajapakse regime continued while the Government soured with the people, and was summarily voted out in presidential and general elections in the year 2015, his loyalty to the LSSP kept him silent as many unsavoury things happened. His foreign travels were limited because of his membership in a Communist Party. The US Embassy refused him a visa, but later relented because the visit was sponsored by WHO.

This period saw Fonseka working quietly in administration. The best testament to his value as a person is that when the Government changed in 2015, he handed in his resignation from the posts of President of Sri Lanka Medical Council and Chairman of the Vijaya Kumaratunga Memorial Hospital at Seeduwa. However, his letter of resignation was promptly returned by the new President. Such is the perception of him as being politically conscious and yet above politics.

In conclusion we may say of Fonseka what Newton’s tomb at Westminster Abbey says in Latin: ‘Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race!’

Thankfully, it is much too early for a real eulogy for Fonseka. God bless him and give us many more years of his insightful mind.

  1. Fonseka, C., Br. Med. J., 1996, 313(7072), 1640–1642.
  2. Cha, A. E., Washington Post, 3 May 2016. Also see Kressler, C., death-in-the-us/ (downloaded 9 May 2016).
  3. Fernando Laksiri, A., The Island, 22 March 2016; David Kumar, B., The Island, 19 March 2016.
  4. Hoole, S. R. H., Gaming the system: Manipulating the impact factor in research, IEEE Institute, 25 September 2014.
  5. Hoole, S. R. H. and Hoole, M. M., Ethics for Engineers – A Human Rights, Internationalist Perspective, Cognella Publishers, San Diego, CA, 2016.

S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole – Election Commission, Sarana Road, Rajagriya, Sri Lanka, and Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA – e-mail:

A Note: This review appeared in the journal Current Science (VOL. 111, NO. 9, 1548-1551) 10 NOVEMBER 2016, a prestigious journal indexed by the Science Citation Index and published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

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