Dr RL Spittel: A Learned Man for the Väddās and the Wild

Richard Boyle. in Serendib, October 2013 where the title runs thus “Dr. R. L. Spittel: City Surgeon, Jungle Doctor, Wildlife Crusader”

In the late 1880s, a boy with the ambition to become a leading physician stood in a jungle clearing watching his surgeon-father perform an autopsy. From the undergrowth a member of the aboriginal people, the Veddahs, suddenly appeared. Their eyes met for one brief moment before the shy Veddah hastily withdrew. It was Richard Lionel Spittel’s first experience of a Veddah; an encounter that profoundly affected his life.

For apart from realising his ambition – he became a renowned city surgeon – Dr. R L Spittel, as he was known, endured countless treks through the wilderness to be the Veddahs’ jungle doctor. And his interest in wildlife led him to crusade tirelessly for the conservation of the Island’s fauna and flora.

Fortunately he was also a writer, a gifted one at that, and recorded his experiences in a handful of internationally acclaimed and, thankfully, reprinted books, thus assisting the awareness of his outstanding work for future generations.

Septicaemia and the wounded doe
In 1760 the first Spittel – a member of the entrepreneurial Dutch Burgher community that migrated to Holland’s colonies – landed in the Island known to his compatriots as Zeilan. The second son of a family of nine, our Spittel, Richard Lionel, was born in 1881 at Tangalle on the south coast. His father was a provincial surgeon whose favourite diversion was to connect with nature, which sparked his son’s love for the jungles and their inhabitants.

In 1910, Spittel, qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, returned to Ceylon to take up his appointment as Third Surgeon at the General Hospital, Colombo. However soon afterwards he caught septicaemia while operating without rubber gloves, which were still unavailable in Ceylon. Consequently his right shoulder was disfigured and immobilised. Yet he was able to resume his career, his surgical skills unimpaired.

Spittel had been a keen hunter. After septicaemia, though, he was not able to shoot – nor did he wish to. At some point the innocence of nature strikes the hunter with unexpected force. In Spittel’s case it came after killing a deer and then finding a fawn nearby. He wrote in his emotive poem “The Wounded Doe” from his anthology Leaves of the Jungle (1953):
It smote the hunter’s heart with awe;
He could not end the deed he’d done.
With anguished, shaken soul he saw
His house, his wife, his little one.

“Surgeon of the Wilderness”
The hunter turned conservationist had to find a new objective in the jungle. During his months in hospital recovering from septicaemia Spittel had remembered his first encounter with a Veddah. Here in Ceylon, he realised, was an anthropologically important type of the human race. Hence he became obsessed with finding the Veddahs.

His quest involved a voyage of exploration few had ever attempted – a journey up the Mahaweli Ganga by canoe. Spittel’s objective was Gunner’s Quoin, a huge rock rising out of dense forest at Dimbulagala, where he hoped to find the Veddahs.

His quarry was at first elusive. Then, one day, three men approached him wearing brief span cloths, with an axe carried over the shoulder. Though the time when they had worn tree-bark was gone, they were close examples of traditional Veddahs. Spittel visited their dwellings and observed the prevalence of malnutrition and malaria, realising there was much work for him to do.

Indeed his greatest works of healing were in the jungle, earning him the tag “Surgeon of the Wilderness”. Often he performed emergency procedures under the most difficult of conditions. But his efforts almost completely cured the people of the Vanni region of venereal disease and malaria. In rural Ceylon, Spittel quickly became well-known for helping the Veddahs and remote village communities.

He wielded a pen as well as scalpel
However, it was as a doctor and surgeon in Colombo that brought him most recognition. Regarding surgery, Spittel achieved wonders in primitive conditions with totally inadequate instruments. In a medical era when speed was vital due to the limitations of anaesthetics, he was one of the fastest yet surest of surgeons. Consequently he was a pioneer: he undertook the first skin graft in Ceylon and administered the first blood transfusion – using his own blood.

In his precious free time, Spittel began to write of the wild Ceylon he experienced, aware of the need to record for posterity the customs of those Veddahs living closest to the lives of their ancestors. His first book, aptly titled Wild Ceylon (1924), contains an exceptional introductory verse about the Veddahs:
In the dim waste lands of the Orient stands
The wreck of a race so old and vast
That the greyest legend cannot lay hands
On a single fact of its tongueless past

Over the next 40 years Spittel wrote many other books on the Veddahs as well as historical novels of Ceylon, the majority published in England. They include Far-Off Things (1933), Savage Sanctuary (1941), Vanished Trails (1950), Where the White Sambhur Roams (1951), and Wild White Boy (1958). The Evening Gazette declared that Where the White Sambhur Roams “Out-Tarzans Tarzan” while the reviewer at the BBC Home Service claimed, “It is the best jungle book I’ve read since the Jungle Book.”

Each book by Spittel was meticulously researched, involving countless visits to the jungle on which his late daughter, Christine, often accompanied him. I met Christine (who wrote a biography of her father, Surgeon of the Wilderness) when making a documentary film on Spittel in 1986. She informed me:

“He carried the barest equipment. A twenty-foot square of canvas to be slung between two trees; a wooden food box containing eggs, biscuits, tea, tinned milk, matches, a tin plate, a knife, fork, spoon, and a little sugar. There were further food boxes with corned beef, rice, and so on – no luxuries, no mineral waters or alcohol. The main thing was presents for the Veddahs such as cloth for the women. Then there were medicines, malaria tablets. He also took them rice, tobacco leaves, gunpowder for their muzzle-loading guns; and axe heads.”

The Veddahs’ “white blood brother”
Christine described her father and his obsession with the Island: “He was incredibly slim – under eight stone. But when he entered a room, somehow he had the power of being noticed – I think because of his very piercing, observant dark eyes. The fire that lit them, and his impassioned speech when he talked of the things nearest his heart — the Veddahs, for whom he fought so hard to try to get equal rights — was extraordinary. So too when he talked of the forests and the animals that he so often had to defend.”
As he wrote in “Hail Lanka!”
Let others belaud the ways of the West,
Or homeland or township, 
wherever it be,
However mighty, however blest –
Lanka, my Island, you are all to m

In 1935, aged 53, Spittel retired from government service. He still ran a private practice, though, and a nursing home at his residence, Wycherley, a venture in which his wife, Clarie — a rare woman doctor of the period — provided invaluable help. For his service to medicine he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and then the CMG (Companion of St Michael and St George). He felt so undeserving of the latter that he had to be persuaded by Prime Minister 
D S Senanayake to accept the honour.

Retirement gave Spittel the opportunity to pursue his wildlife ambitions. In 1916 he had joined the Ceylon Game Protection Society – known today as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society. From the narrow interests of game and sport, he guided the society into the wider fields of conservation and the establishment of national parks – he helped to establish Wilpattu for example. He also founded the wildlife magazine Loris, which he edited for many years.

Richard Spittel died in 1969, aged 88. He was described in an obituary as “one of the last great savants who dedicated their lives to explore the heritage of Ceylon”, while another declared, “though steeped in western culture, [he] went off the beaten tracks of clubs and tennis courts into the wilderness where Ceylonese customs, traditions, arts and crafts were studied and revealed to the world”.

Shortly after Spittel’s death, a tearful Veddah arrived at Wycherley. Placing his axe in front of the definitive portrait of Spittel – executed by Sri Lankan maestro David Paynter in 1937, which now hangs at the National Art Gallery – he began to sing to the spirits of his ancestors, the Nae Yaku. Representing the Veddahs, he was paying his last respects to his hudu hura (“white blood brother”).   


A NOTE from The Editor, Thuppahi: “What a marvellous Vale and Requiem!!”         

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One response to “Dr RL Spittel: A Learned Man for the Väddās and the Wild

  1. Sumie casinader

    It is a great story: how A well-educated doctor and the Veddhas got along. I think as a doctor every human being was same to him.

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