Prof. Carlo Fonseka (1933-2019)

The Barnum of Sri Lanka

by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 20, 2019

Prof. Carlo Fonseka, who died on September 2, 2019 at the age of 86, belongs to my tribe. Born in Sri Lanka 20 years apart (I’m his junior) and we both had a professional career as an academic in mostly university setting. Due to vagaries of ethnicity and political circumstances, he spent most of life in Sri Lanka, while I had spent more years in Japan than I had spent in Sri Lanka. He entered the medical faculty at the University of Colombo and passed out with an MBBS degree. Twenty years later, I could have entered the medical faculty like him, but due to the racist, ethnically discriminative policies of the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (installed in the May 1970 general election) I lost that opportunity. My disappointment with Prof. Carlo Fonseka was that, during that period, while he was serving as a high profile medical faculty member of the University of Colombo (due to his promotion of anti- firewalking stance in the media – more about this will appear in the latter half), he never raised his voice against such a discriminatory government policy. His Trotskyist party LSSP was a coalition member. Carlo’s silence against ethnically biased standardisation has been suppressed by Prof. Fonseka’s eulogists (Prof. S. Ratnajeevan Hoole in Colombo Telegraph, Sept.5, 2019 and Pramod de Silva, in the Sunday Observer, Colombo, Sept.8, 2019).

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

In 1970s, I was also an ordinary member of the Ceylon Rationalist Association, then led by Dr. Abraham T. Kovoor (1898-1978). Prof. Fonseka was one of the Vice Presidents, and a prominent face for this Association. This was, mainly because of his Barnum act of fire walking ritual rebuttal in 1970. Following the death of Kovoor in 1978, many like me felt that Prof. Fonseka would offer good leadership. Sadly, this was not to be, and this association lost the vibrancy of 1960s and 1970s, withered, and became dormant. This also attests to one fact, that despite his media-projected image, Prof. Fonseka lacked leadership skills. According to my diary entry in 1978, I also faced Prof. Fonseka once in the selection committee for an interview for the permanent assistant lecturer position in biochemistry, for the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. Of course, I was one of the unselected candidates.

Eulogists pick up only convenient facts about the guy whom they want to project as an angel. After I read those two eulogies to Carlo Fonseka, I felt the urge to record my thoughts. This man’s deeds in public life have to be tempered by his self-promotion gimmicks and hyperbole claims. In my view, that joke of Mel Brooks – ‘It was world famous in Warsaw’scripted in ‘To Be or Not to Be’ (1983) movie suits to Carlo Fonseka. He was ‘World famous in Colombo!’.

Unlike other eulogists and editorialists, I have an experience in crossing swords (figuratively that is) in the correspondence columns of the now defunct Asiaweek magazine in 1991-92. This was after the ouster of Mikhail Gorbachev in the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991. I contributed a short letter to the Asiaweek magazine, and Carlo Fonseka contributed his criticism subsequently. Unusually, our ‘debate’ was permitted by the editors four more times. What began in Sept. 1991, was extended to May 1992. One should note that the material I sent to the editor’s desk was chopped for space reasons without my consent, and what appeared in print subsequently was partially distorted. I cannot assure that the same thing could have happened to Prof. Fonseka’s comments too. But the fact that he was having the ‘Professor’ tag in front of his name (which I didn’t have at that time) might have tempted the editors’ to cavalierly ignore the logic in his argument. This has been my serious criticism of Prof. Fonseka’s public career. He simply couldn’t carry on a healthy debate, without name calling and bullying those who disagree with him. He also couldn’t stick to the point of argument, and opt to divert the attention of the readers with irrelevant, sophomoric ephemera.

To prove these points, I provide below the six published versions of the letters (three of mine, and three of Prof. Fonseka) in chronological sequence. The captions were provided by the Asiaweek editorial desk.

  • Nobel Jinx – Sachi Sri Kantha, Osaka, Japan. [Asiaweek, Sept.27, 1991]

As you recall [Aug.30], Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. His near-ouster is a reminder that any serving or former head of state awarded a Nobel prize will vanish or become physically or politically incapacitated soon after receiving it.

Teddy Roosevelt (Nobel, 1906) lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. Soon after winning a Nobel (1919), Wilson fell ill and spent the rest of his life a vegetable. In 1953 Prime Minister Winston Churchill won a Nobel for literature; by 1955 he was out of office. Anwar Sadat(’78) was assassinated; co-winner Menachem Begin became a recluse.

Do not forget Sato Eisaku. He won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize. Months later he died. Call it the Nobel jinx.

  • The Nobel Bathing Jinx – Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Ragama, Sri Lanka [Asiaweek, Nov.22, 1991]

From the fact that certain tendentiously selected examples of serving or former heads of state lost an election or fell ill or died after winning the Nobel Prize, Sachi Sri Kantha [LETTERS. Sept.27] concludes that they came to grief because they won it. His ‘Nobel Jinx’ thesis provides a screaming example of the post hoc fallacy, which assumes that ‘after an event’ implies ‘because of the event’.

I remember reading somewhere that the German philosopher Schopenhauer believed bathing was bad for the health. So he never took a bath. When in his 70s, he changed his mind and took a bath and died a few days later. His death is said to have reinforced the belief of some of his friends that bathing was indeed a dangerous thing.

  • The Nobel Jinx – Sachi Sri Kantha, Osaka, Japan [Asiaweek, Dec.13, 1991]

I reject the comments of Prof. Carlo Fonseka of Sri Lanka [LETTERS, Nov. 22] regarding my Nobel Jinx theory. My sampling was not ‘tendentiously selected,’ as he asserts. It was from the total population of Nobel Peace and Literature laureates.

Of the 75 individuals who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, only seven were heads of state and one was a former head of state. In my earlier letter [Sept. 27] I mentioned six of them: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Sato Eisaku. I left out Willy Brandt and Oscar Arias Sanchez. But I should point out that Brandt did not escape the jinx. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 and left office in the midst of a spy scandal in 1974.

Millions of people all over the world believe in jinxes – and miracles. Maybe Prof. Fonseka is peeved by the downfall of his hero Gorbachev.

  • The Nobel Jinx – Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Colombo, Sri Lanka [Asiaweek, Mar.6, 1992]

If 6 out of 8 heads of state lose an election or fall ill or die within a few years of receiving the Nobel Prize, is it rational to conclude that the prize was the cause of their misfortune? A resounding yes is the answer Sachi Sri Kantha gives from Osaka, Japan. His response to my skepticism is the equivalent of a childish tantrum. Millions of people believe in jinxes he says; for another thing, maybe ‘Prof. Fonseka is peeved by the downfall of his hero Gorbachev’ [LETTERS, Dec. 13]

Given Sri Kantha’s epistolary record, one really should not be surprised by what he calls his Nobel Jinx theory. As an assiduous reader of Asiaweek I well remember a theory he once propounded from Philadelphia, USA. Because some 50% of a mixed electorate of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim voters in the North and East of Sri Lanka voted for separatist parties in 1977, he concluded that over 50% of all Tamils living in those regions voted for a separate state and that all who voted for a separate state were Tamils.

Asiaweek’s Dec.13 issue also carried a brilliant editorial concerning activists who are prone to ‘hasty conclusions based on faulty information, impatience with details and a general lack of discernment.’ It should be mandatory reading for the likes of Sri Kantha. As he reviews his theory, let him consider the fates of a ‘control group’ of non-laureates Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Zia ul Haq will do.

  • That Jinx – Sachi Sri Kantha, Osaka, Japan [Asiaweek, Mar.27, 1992]

In his haste to disprove my Nobel Jinx theory, Prof. Carlo Fonseka [LETTERS. Mar. 6] himself commits a cardinal sin in satistics by opting for a biased ‘control group’.

His group consists of non-laureates: Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Zia-ul Haq. Does he know whether all the members of his control group were first nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

The ideal control group would consist of all heads of state who were nominated for the prize and did not win it. I would exclude people like Lester Pearson and Lech Walesa who became Nobel peace laureates before they became heads of state. An all- inclusive control group would be the heads of every state since 1901.

Prof. Fonseka’s biased selection shows his contempt for the proper application of statistical principles.

  • The Nobel Jinx – Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Ragama, Sri Lanka [Asiaweek, May 15, 1992]

It was I who pressed Sachi Sri Kantha to test the validity of his Nobel Jinx theory by considering the fates of an equivalent group of non-laureates. Now he of all people accuse me of showing contempt for the proper application of statistical principles [LETTERS, Mar. 27]. O tempora! O mores!

For the purpose of Sri Kantha’s theory, heads of state means heads of state who have been nominated for the Nobel Prize!

As Bertrand Russell once said, ‘To discuss endlessly what silly people mean when they say silly things may be amusing, but it can hardly be important.’ So I give up arguing Sri Kantha on this point. Let him have the final say like the schoolmaster in the Deserted Village, ‘e’en though vanquished he could argue still.’


Aftermath that Debate

I did respond to the final published letter of Prof. Fonseka, but this letter went unpublished. I wrote to the editors of the Asiaweek, that I had been researching on the Nobel prizes and proved it by sending them reprints of my publications in peer-reviewed journals (up to May 1992), and asked the editors to verify whether Prof. Fonseka had published any papers on the same theme. I couldn’t find a single paper of his on this particular theme, in the Pub Med. database. On the contrary, I had four publications:

Sri Kantha S. The question of nepotism in the award of Nobel prizes: a critique of the view of Hans Krebs. Med. Hypotheses, 1991Jan; 34(1): 28-32.

Sri Kantha S. A centennial review: the 1890 tetanus antitoxin paper of von Behring and Kitasato and the related developments. Keio J. Med. 1991 Mar; 40(1): 35-39.

Sri Kantha S. Avery’s non-recognition in Nobel awards. Bioessays, 1989 Apr; 10(4): 131.

Sri Kantha S. A review of Nobel prizes in medicine or physiology, 1901-87. Keio J. Med. 1989 Mar; 38(1): 1-12.

Subsequently, the editor of the Asiaweek noted in his column that the ‘debate’ was even, and that my reprints will be in the collection of the magazine’s library.

I present evidence below in a postscript from a Sinhalese reader Haris Ediriweera Kadawatha in the Island (Colombo) newspaper of Sept. 21, 1986 that malicious ridicule of an opponent is a weapon frequently used by Prof. Fonseka. This was five years before my entanglement with him in the pages of the Asiaweek.


On the Fire-Walking spectacle promoted by Prof. Fonseka in 1970.

For a description of an almost 50 year-old event, along the traditions of P.T. Barnum, that was staged by Prof. Fonseka in Colombo, I rely on the reports that were published in the Ceylon Rationalist Ambassador – 1971 issue, pages 8 – 57.

There are three components: (1) description of the show at the Medical Faculty, Colombo Medical School. (2) Prof. Fonseka’s report on the observations on fire walking, presented at the 26th Annual Sessions of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, in Dec. 1970. (3) A critic by Dr. K.Velmany, on the varied conditions between the Medical Faculty ‘show’ and that of Kathirgamam temple fire walking ceremony.

First, a decription of the ‘show’ arranged by Prof. Fonseka, at the Centenary celebrations of the Colombo Medical School. (as reported in the Ceylon Daily News of Sept.6, 1970).

“ ‘Have a drink Lionel’, said Dr. Carlo Fonseka of the Colombo Medical Faculty pouring out a bumper drink of arrack for his laboratory attendant at the Medical Exhibition last night. Lionel gulped it down and then proceeded to walk on a bed of glowing cinders quite calmly and casually. He walked over the cinders the temperature of which was recorded at 400oC (752oF) by a thermocouple, and there were no burns on his soles.

The idea of the demonstration by the Physiology Department of the Colombo Medical Faculty was to show that firewalking was not a spiritual phenomenon. Traditional firewalking said Dr. Fonseka, demanded certain religious observances such as abstinence from alcohol. This demonstration was to show that no such observances were necessary. In fact, he said, firewalking depended on two factors. The thickness of the soles (nothing to do with souls) and the duration of contact between the soles and the glowing cinders. Observations at the firewalking ceremony held recently at the Kataragama temple showed that the period of contact between the soles and the cinders of 100 firewalkers was only three tenths of a second. This was not sufficient to cause a burn.”

Secondly, what Dr. Fonseka reported in Dec, 1970 at the Annual Sessions of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, was as follows:

“The number of steps taken by each of hundred arbitrarily selected firewalkers to traverse the fire, and the time taken by each to do so were determined during a firewalking ceremony at Kataragama temple. On an average, they traversed the fire with 10 steps (range 5 to 12) taken in 3 seconds (range 1.5 – 6).

The surface temperature at different points, on several beds of embers, measured by means of a thermoelectric pyrometer just before ceremonial firewalking commenced, was found to vary from about 300oC to about 450oC. Inspection of the feet of many who frequently do firewalking showed that the epidermis of their soles was thick when compared with that of habitually shod people.

The hypothesis that the immunity of firewalking, is due to the shortness of the duration of contact between their soles and the embers in taking a step, was tested on 15 fires. These fires prepared by burning logs of Vitex pinnata (S. milla), the standard wood used for ceremonial firewalks, were 6 feet long 1½ feet wide and 1½ inches thick. Their surface temperature at different points ranged from about 350oC to about 500oC. With no special preparation – physical, mental or spiritual – five healthy adult men walked these fires with a maximum of 4 steps taken in a maximum time of 2 seconds. They did not sustain any burns. These subjects also walked a bed of glowing embers 15 feet long, 4 feet wide and 2 inches thick without injury.”

Thirdly, Dr. K. Velmany, in a letter published in the Ceylon Daily News (Sept. 24, 1970), pointed out that the conditions that prevailed at the Kathirgamam temple firewalking ritual and the Colombo Medical School sponsored firewalking event were not equal. Excerpts were:

“The conditions that prevailed at a firewalking ceremony which I witnessed some time back at Kataragama were:

  • A trench was dug three feet deep (?) and about 20 feet long.
  • The trench was filled with logs and then another layer of logs were piled on top of this to a height of about 1 foot above the ground level. (?)
  • This was lit about 5 pm, and the firewalking commenced about 3 am on a red-hot closely packed bed of cinders which generated enough heat to keep the people who were watching at least ten feet away from the bed. (This is in contrast to the medical show where sophisticated ladies and gentlemen sat in the cool, if not chilling comfort of an airconditioned room, barely two feet (?) from the bed.

Dear Dr. Fonseka, as a rationalist and a physiologist you will agree that your ‘show’ was conducted under conditions remote from those that prevail at normal firewalking ceremony…I challenge you to firewalk under the conditions which I have described above.”

Eventually, Dr. Fonseka did NOT pick up the challenge suggested by Dr. K. Velmany. Two eulogists of Prof. Fonseka (mentioned above) had highlighted a fact that the BBC cameras documented that 1970 firewalking show, while Arthur C. Clarke was also in the audience. So what? Was Arthur C. Clarke, the high priest of science? As Dr. Velmany noted within weeks of the event and subsequently, Dr. K. Indrakumar reported in his book, ‘Firewalking – the Burning Facts’ (1972), Fonseka faked that event, a la P.T. Barnum fashion.


Publications of Carlo Fonseka [as listed in the Pub Med. database]

Between 1965 and 2018, Carlo Fonseka has ONLY 18 publications, as indexed in the Pub Med database. [see below] Eleven among these 18 publications appeared in the Ceylon Medical Journal. It is a sad fact that his status as a published medical-scientist (by contemporary standards) is rather dubious. To this critic, that Carlo Fonseka is a polymath of a grade, seems nothing but prattle.

Hunter WM, Fonseka CC, Passmore R. The role of growth hormone in the mobilization of fuel for muscular exercise. Q J Exp Physiol Cogn Med Sci. 1965 Oct; 50(4), 406-416.

Hunter WM, Fonseka CC, Passmore R. Growth hormone: important role in muscular exercise in adults. Science 1965 Nov.19; 150: 1051-1053.

Fonseka C. Fire walking: a scientific investigation. Ceylon Med J. 1971 Jun; 16(2): 104-109.

Fonseka C. Prof. K. Rajasuriya MD (Cey), DCH (Lon), FRCP (Lond). Ceylon Med J. 1975 Mar; 20(1): 63-65.

Kordy MT, Fonseka C. Educational goals in physiology for dental students in Saudi Arabia. J Dent Edu. 1983 May; 47(5): 336-339.

Fonseka C. High living standards on low incomes. World Health Forum, 1989; 10(1): 105-107.

Fonseka C. History of physiology in Sri Lanka and Prof. A.C.E.Koch. Ceylon Med J. 1989 Mar; 34(1): 17-25.

Fonseka C. Health and economics. 2. Ceylon Med J. 1991 Dec; 36(4): 133-136.

Fonseka C. Ocular injuries from flying bottle caps. Ceylon Med J. 1993 Dec; 38(4): 190-191.

Fonseka C. World bank prescription for health. Ceylon Med J. 1996 Jun; 41(2): 33-36.

Fonseka C. To err is fatal. Brit Med J. 1996 Dec; 313: 1640-1642.

Wariyapola D. Goonesinghe N, Priyamanna TH, Fonseka C, Ismail MM, Abeyewickreme W, Dissanaike AS. Second case of ocular parastrongyliasis from Sri Lanka. Trans R Soc Tro Med Hyg. 1998 Jan-Feb; 92(1): 64-65.

Weerakoon IK, Fonseka C. Retinopathy of prematurity in Sri Lanka. Ceylon Med J. 2000 Dec; 43(4): 194-195.

Fonseka C. Are all brain functions computable? Ceylon Med J. 2000 Dec; 45(4): 156-157.

Fonseka C. Diabolical work. Ceylon Med J. 2000 Dec; 45(4): 185.

Fonseka C. Deshamanya Dr. P.R.Anthonis. Ceylon Med J. 2006 Mar; 51(1): 29-31.

Fonseka C. Tobacco, alcohol and doctors. Ceylon Med J. 2009 Sep; 54(3): 71-74.

Piyasena MMPN, Gudlavalleti VSM, Gilbert C, Yip JL, Peto T, MacLeod D, Fonseka C, Kulatunga A, Bandutilake B, Dhanapala M, Pathirana L, Dissanayake H. Development and validation of a diabetic retinopathy screening modality using a hand-held nonmydriatic digital retinal camera by physician graders at a tertiary-level medical clinic: protocol for a validation study. JMIR Res Protocol 2018 Dec 10; 7(12): e10900. Doi. 10.2196/10900.


A letter criticizing Carlo Fonseka’s mischief, by Haris Ediriweera Kadawatha, in the Island (Colombo), Sept.21, 1986. [The caption is as in the original]

In Bad Taste?

I write to express my views not about the ethnic issue or devolution of power but on first principals of free journalism.

I have followed very keenly the new page in the Sunday Island – forum – brought out to express the opinions and views of educated citizens in this country on the proposals for devolution of power by the establishment of provincial councils.

Some of the articles in the forum page have been of a high standard. Credit certainly goes to your newspaper for at least treating this subject so openly, the right of every citizen in a so called democracy.

But I have a reservation and a comment to make on your standards of journalistic practice. Your editor should practice discretion he is privileged to use when readers or authors of articles attempt to use your newspaper columns for cheap publicity or for mischievous and malicious comment.

I read the two articles written by Indrani Iriyagolle, they were comprehensive forthright, informative and of a high standard and easy for the ordinary person to understand. Two letters written by Mr. Carlo Fonseka (whom I later found out to be Professor Carlo Fonseka of the Ceylon University) published on the 10th and 24th August through your columns were indeed in bad taste. Argument and debate as mentioned by Inrani Iriyagolle is certainly welcome. It enriches experience and knowledge but when a writer maliciously ridicules another, as it seemed to me, for holding certain views contrary to the other, it is poor debate and from your side, POOR JOURNALISM.

I was appalled that your Editor had permitted such mischievous comment (much of it was comment and less facts) to go unedited. I am even surprised that a University don such as Mr. Fonseka had resorted to such cheap tactics. Personal ridicule, mischievous and ambiguous comment are the crude implements of the illiterate and the uneducated.

A University teacher should set a better example. The readers would have taken Mr. Fonseka’s views more seriously had he presented them in academic style. It is perhaps a good example of persons holding fixations about ideology. They are reluctant to take kindly to rival opinion. They confuse the reader and disappoint the intellectual.

I request that this letter be published in the FORUM to encourage others to express their views frankly without malice and ridicule. It will not only help improve standards of journalism but also train the educated and the not so educated the principles of tolerance and the give and take of knowledge. After all, supporters of devolution of power and those advocating the establishment of Provincial Councils should know that all this will not be workable without tolerance and compromise, and the sharing of resources. And this includes human resources and resourcefulness too.




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