by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 19, 2014
‘It’s better late than never’ – is a favorite working dictum of mine. Thus, I offer this brief late tribute to Dr. Grace Rajamalar Barr Kumarakulasinghe, who died on April 26, 2013, at the ripe age of 104 years! I presume, her longevity is a record for any Tamil professional born in Sri Lanka.
Tributes by Dr. Lucas and Prof. Manouri Senanayake
Previously, when she reached her 100th birthday in 2008, two belonging to medical fraternity had offered felicitation tributes. One was by Dr. G.N. Lucas, who served an internship under her in 1967. This appeared in the Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health in 2008. The other one was by Prof. Manouri P. Senanayake, the current Professor of Pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. This tribute appeared in the Ceylon Medical Journal in 2009. Prof. Senanayake informed that she had “the good fortune to first meet this gracious lady when she was in her 98th year” and Dr. Barr Kumarakulasinghe had told her that “in late 1930s her monthly salary was a princely 100 rupees”! I provide a PDF file of this tribute by Prof. Senanayake. Then, last year, Prof. Senanayake had contributed an obituary note to Dr. Grace Barr Kumarakulasinghe to the Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health.
From these three tributes, we learn that Grace Rajamalar was born as the 7th child of Mr. G.V. and Alice Sinnathamby on August 7, 1908. Though she was interested in getting a degree in English literature, due to the influence of her brother Dr. G.S. Sinnathamby, Grace had to enter the Colombo Medical College and she qualified as a doctor in 1937. Think for a while, the time span of her long life. When she was born, Sir Pon Ramanathan and Sir Pon Arunachalam were the dominant Tamil leaders from Colombo. Then, when she received her medical degree, G.G. Ponnambalam’s star was rising. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam was yet to enter politics. When she returned from UK after postgraduate studies in 1953, Chelvanayakam’s star was rising. I presume that Dr. Barr Kumarakulasinghe would have retired around late 1960s. Then, during her retirement years, she lived through the leadership phases of Amirthalingam and Prabhakaran as well. I wish, if my father was alive, I could have gained more information about her, from him because he had worked in the general clerical service of the Health Department at the same Colombo hospitals (Lady Ridgeway Hospital, De Soysa Maternity Hospital and Castle Street Hospital for Women) where Dr. Barr Kumarakulasinghe had worked.
A Published Scientist
As none of the above-mentioned three tributes to Dr. Grace Rajamalar Kumarakulasinghe included any reference to her published work, I checked the compilation of Kamalika Pieris and Chris Uragoda’s ‘A Bibliography of Medical Publications relating to Sri Lanka, 1811-1976’ and found that she had published six full length research papers, between 1954 and 1964. These six publications certify her status as a medical scientist – the only centenarian Tamil scientist we have, as of now. Here are citations for these papers:
(1) Barr Kumarakulasinghe G.R.: Some observations on neonatal mortality and morbidity in the De Soysa Maternity Hospital. Journal of Ceylon Obstetrical and Gynecological Association, 1954; 1: 59-65.
(2) Barr Kumarakulasinghe G.R. and Sivalingam, M: Tension pneumothorax. Journal of Children’s Hospital, Colombo, 1958; 7(1): 21-23.
(3) Barr Kumarakulasinghe G.R. and Sivalingam, M: Tuberculosis of the intestines. Journal of Children’s Hospital, Colombo, 1958; 7(1): 53-54.
(4) Zam Zameer, A.M.A. and Barr Kumarakulasinghe, G.: A case of balantidial dysentery in a child. Journal of Children’s Hospital, Colombo, 1960; 9(1): 36-39.
(5) Zam Zameer, A.M.A. and Barr Kumarakulasinghe, G.: A case of chronic myeloid leukaemia in a child treated with Myeleran. Journal of Children’s Hospital, Colombo, 1960; 9(1): 49-53.
(6) Barr Kumarakulasinghe, G.: The newborn. Ceylon Journal of Child Health, 1964; (Journal’s volume number, not indicated.) 5-15.
Of course, not a single of these publications were in international journals. Nevertheless, considering the trends of those times, and the inconvenience and the burdens she carried as a practicing pediatrician in technically under-developed Ceylon, the simple fact that Dr. Barr Kumarakulasinghe bothered to make observations, record them appropriately and took the trouble to publish such observations deserve credit.
My interest in Centenarian Scientists
Lest I be charged for blowing my own trumpet, I do mention briefly my interest in centenarian scientists. In 1999, I published a short letter in the Lancet medical journal (June 26, 1999) on centenarian scientists. In it, I could count only 5 scientists, among whom only one lived in the 19th century. In that letter, I proposed a hypothesis that, “due to the reality of the explosion in the number of centenarians in the 20th century, the number of scientists and inventors who became centenarians also should show an increase.” To collect data to prove my hypothesis, I used an ingenious route. I sent a copy of this short letter in Lancet to Mr. K.M. Reese, who edited the ‘Newscripts’ page of the weekly ‘Chemical & Engineering News’, the flagship weekly of the American Chemical Society. Mr. Reese, published the contents of my letter with the annotation, “Sachi Sri Kantha of the Japan Institute for the Control of Aging, Fukuroi City, has been counting centenarian scientists – those who have lived at least 100 years.” in the Aug. 2, 1999 issue of the Chem.& Eng. News. Then, one by one, other members of the American Chemical Society who read this news item, provided the details of centenarian scientists whom they know of. By early 2001, I was able to count additional 30 centenarian scientists. Then, I wrote a paper entitled, ‘Centenarian scientists: an unusual cluster newly formed in the 20th century’, which was published in the Medical Hypotheses journal in late 2001. Among the 34 centanarian scientists who reached 100 years in the 20th century, there were 26 Americans, 6 British, one German and one French. I couldn’t find information on any scientists from Asia or Africa.
I still keep collecting information on centenarian scientists for a sequel to that 2001 paper. And I’m glad that Dr. Grace Rajamalar Barr Kumarakulasinghe had contributed one data point from Asia, by her publication record.
Lucas, G.N.: Felicitation – Dr. Grace Barr Kumarakulasinghe. Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health, 2008; 37: 105.
Peiris, K. and Uragoda, C.G: A Bibliography of Medical Publications relating to Sri Lanka, 1811-1976, National Science Council of Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1976.
Senanayake, M.P: Tribute – A paediatrician is hundred years young. Ceylon Medical Journal, 2009; 54(2): 67.
Senanayake, M. P: Obituary – Dr. Grace Barr Kumarakulasinghe (1908-2013). Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health, 2013; 42(3): 175-176.
Sri Kantha S: Centenarian scientists. Lancet, 1999; 353: 2250.
Sri Kantha S: Centenarian scientists: an unusual cluster newly formed in the 20th century. Medical Hypotheses, 2001; 57(6): 750-753.