Vale: Carlo Fonseka’s Manifold Gifts Inscribed in Memory

ONE: Ishara Jayawardena: Carlo Fonseka: Unparalleled,” Daily News, 4 September 2019

 Professor Carlo Fonseka ushered in an episode rare in its own right. He always stood for what he thought was just. Not merely a physician cum academic, Fonseka established his turf far beyond the general boundaries as a political activist, rationalist, creative artiste and many more roles. His academic prowess was a remarkable factor, yet his wit fused with wisdom generously applied in writing as well as orations was significant.

The Daily News got in touch with three renowned academics to ascertain the intellectual estate he has bequeathed.

Sri Lanka Medical Association Vice President and Head, Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Colombo University, Professor Saroj Jayasinghe painted a picture of a gentleman who was benign and compassionate. “He was a great believer in humanity and was an erudite scholar. Throughout his life, he tried his best to be humane. He had a vast knowledge which was not limited to medicine and science but extended to the arts and culture. I think even during an illness his mind was very sharp. He was well respected during his time. He always endeavoured to see that the medical profession remained humane. He was very fair to everyone and demonstrated compassion in all that he did and believed that all in the medical profession should retain that element of compassion,” said Professor Jayasinghe.

Owing to the vast knowledge in diverse fields, Carlo Fonseka was considered a polymath.  “He had knowledge in science, culture, math, health and education. He could perceive a problem in a holistic way and had a unique and analytical way of looking at a problem or issue,” added Professor Jayasinghe.

Senior Lecturer in Clinical Medicine, University of Colombo, Dr. Panduka Karunanayake, was of the opinion that the legacy that Carlo Fonseka left has really impacted the youth of Sri Lanka. “Definitely his legacy lies in the many student generations who have been touched by his presence on this earth. They have grown up and learnt much from him. Generations have benefited from his ideals and teachings. Their success is due to him,” said Dr Karunanayake.

Few Sri Lankans have impacted Society the way Carlo Fonseka did. He will be remembered as one of the greatest sons of the land. “What he meant to society – a great medical teacher, an erudite person who straddled several disciplines ranging from science through politics to the arts, a public intellectual who did not fear to court controversy. He will be remembered – as a medical teacher who taught and inspired generations of doctors, a public intellectual who sought to enrich society’s understanding of important issues through his clear, reasoned and attractive speeches and writings,” explained Karunanayake.

Emeritus Professor JB Disanayaka praised late Carlo Fonseka’s mental faculties that went in hand in hand with his warm character. “Professor Carlo Fonseka was a very affable and extremely likeable person. He possessed admirable mental faculties that allowed his mind to venture into many other disciplines such as the arts and culture. In fact, he was a wonderful person who was also a rationalist. He also had a great passion for learning. He transcended the boundaries of learning, always seeking knowledge. Throughout his career, he was much loved and revered. He was also a man of letters amongst his many talents,” said Professor Disanayaka.

TWO: S. Ratnejeevan S. Hoole,

As I bemoan my loss as well as mankind’s, I am thankful to God for three things. First that Carlo joked about the Newton obituary at the end of this article saying it was premature. Indeed he outlasted it by 3 years. Second, it was last week that I got a chance to visit him at the National Hospital. His request to me was that I visit a 42 year old Tamil man Jesuthasan he had befriended who was alone and awaiting a difficult heart operation. That is the man Carlo was. He remembered only “Intensive care”. I found Jesuthasan and visited him too.

Now the third. Carlo was an avowed atheist. He has dedicated his body to a medical school. However, he took his wife to Church regularly. I remind Aunty Carlo of the promise to her through Acts of the Apostles, 16: 30-31 because of her faith: Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” 

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

Time was when science was just one endeavour of many for the great scientists of the world.  For example, Sir Isaac Newton was a true polymath –  a celebrated master of astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, physics and theology1. Another polymath was The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was an Oxford mathematician, Anglican theologian, musician, author, publisher and the 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.

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 of the University of Ceylon (now Colombo), is such an exception – engaging in medicine, management of public bodies, theology, music, leftwing Trotskyite politics, and many other things and bringing these to the public through op-ed pieces, radio and television talk shows.

This book under review consists of a collected volume of his selected writings and speeches over a lifetime on diverse topics such as medicine, science, philosophy and ethics, religion, economics, politics, education, the arts, biographies he has written and his travel experience. The selection has 34 essays written between 1971 and 2014. Of particular note is his first chapter, appropriately titled “To Err was Fatal”, where in his honesty he details the five deaths he attributes to his erroneous interventions, where it is clear that he is being too hard on himself.

The book has been reviewed in many places 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 Carlo the man. For that is relevant to understanding what he writes.

Carlo Fonseka graduated MBBS 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 Hormone has become the stuff of textbooks.

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 of the LTTE was rarely able to draw from Christians. 

Likewise, Carlo 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 as Carlo lectured as a monumental work of literature. Around the year 2004, we shared the same office while being members of the UGC 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 appears that he has become computerate though not to the degree that he is literate).

However, communication alone is not enough for greatness. The absence of taboos is another dimension of greatness. For example, in his stark honesty, he 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 privilege of reading how medical negligence does lead to deaths even from caring, ethical doctors.

The medical school could not keep Carlo engaged in the pedestrian activities of a university where today we 

1. 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 know the difference through actually reading the papers), 

2. Have journals which will publish anything for a fee, and so many citation indexes that make a mockery of journal evaluations, 

3. See university administrations claiming  that grant money is important as research because overheads give them the best offices in a university, 

4. Recognize even university ranking is subject to gaming, and

5. Every metric to measure quality is countered by clever academics by another metric they invent to cheat the system2.

Carlo I am sure 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 textbook3,

“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 came a cropper by fire walking to show it can be done by anyone and in the process burnt their soles badly. 

To demonstrate that there is nothing religious, Carlo 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.

Carlo 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.

Carlo’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), Carlo and his LSSP friends under the late N.M. Perera, D.Sc. Lond., did Tamils proud by standing up for Tamil rights and parity of status for Tamil with Sinhalese. However, as the LSSP realized that the policy was not winning them votes, they abandoned their noble ideals. Carlo had to lapse into silence. 

As the political culture in Sri Lanka deteriorated, Carlo withdrew into religion and music and cultivated a new hairdo to match. Whether for better or worse I am unable to decide.  He completed an MA 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 and others are used in award winning movies.

In 2005 President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the widow of slain leader Vijaya Kumaratunga (Carlo’s elder sister’s son) was rooting for her brother Anura Bandaranaike to succeed her as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader while Mahinda Rajapakse staked his own claim. Carlo inclined toward Rajapakse. As we sat in our office together, he mused that as he was playing with his favorite grandnephew (Chandrika’s son), Chandrika reminded him, “Carlo Maamaa [Uncle], remember he is Anura’s nephew.” That stopped Carlo short of an outright endorsement of the Mahinda Rajapakse candidature except for an op-ed praising Mahinda’s father George Rajapakse.

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 went on. Everyone made money, but not Carlo. The only money he made was when he fled Sri Lanka in March 1988 after making a strong eulogy condemning the killers at the funeral of his nephew Vijeya Kumaratunga who had been murdered by the JVP insurgents, to accept an appointment at the UN University in Helsinki. He told me that he returned with US$30,000 with which he built his house and gave the rest for his children’s education. His foreign travels were limited because of his membership in a community party. The US embassy refused him a visa even for official trips because there was ban on visas for communists. Besides the house, Carlo’s only sign of wealth is his Micro Car.

This period saw Carlo 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 National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol. However, his letters of resignation were promptly returned by the new President. Such is the perception of him as being politically conscious and yet above politics.

Thus in conclusion we may say of Carlo 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 Carlo. God Bless him and give us many more years of his insightful and sharp mind.



2. Hoole, S.R.H., “Gaming Performance Measures: Institutional and Individual,” IETE Technical Review. Accepted. In press.

5. Hoole, S.R.H.  and Hoole, M.M. and Hoole, Dushyanthi, Ethics for Professionals – a Human Rights, Internationalist Perspective, Cognella Publishers, San Diego, CA, 2018

THREE: A Comment from “Old Codger,” in the Colombo Telegraph Felicitation

The fact that two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Prof.Hoole and Malinda Seneviratna have eulogized CF says something about the man.
“Most successful men in Sri Lanka are no exceptions and products of the church and her schools which gave them their skills”.
True about CF . In spite of all the carping about forced conversions , cultural distortions etc. here is a man who entered SJC as a Catholic, and came out as an atheist and connoisseur of Sinhala culture. But then SJC also produced Mohan Pieris and Dayan Jayatillaka. Still, the only Sri Lankan scientist of serious international repute was from St. Aloysius’ College, Galle , which was run by dedicated Jesuits who even had a mini observatory which set Cyril Ponnamperuma on his career.
To those who condemn CF for being a Marxist, I would ask why so many brilliant people take to Marxism? Is there something about the idea that we can’t see? If we are talking about democracy, where is that to be found? In the USA, where black people drank from separate fountains when CF was a young man? Or the UK, where the head of state cannot be a Catholic?
At the very least, Marxism destroyed the power of the Church in Russia. We need something similar to deal with monks who interpret the Constitution. I admired CF when he did his firewalking stunt , and collaborated with Dr. Kovoor in his campaign against astrology and witchcraft. I think he was wrong to join the Rajapaksa bandwagon, but maybe that was out a sense of solidarity with his LSSP comrades.

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