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Dr. R. L. Spittel: Surgeon of the wilderness

(@Sunday Times) September 3,1999 was the 30th death anniversary of Dr. R. L. Spittel, the surgeon, anthropologist, wildlife conservationist and author. This tribute to an exceptional, multi-faceted man by Richard Boyle is based on his documentary film script, Surgeon of the Wilderness (1986), which was in turn based on Christine Wilson's biography of her father (bearing the same title) published in 1975.

pictureIn the late 1880s, a young boy with a burning ambition to become a doctor stood in a jungle clearing watching his surgeon-father perform an autopsy. From the undergrowth a Veddah suddenly appeared. The eyes of the boy and the Veddah met for one brief yet significant moment before the latter hastily withdrew into the jungle. It was Richard Lionel Spittel's first encounter with a member of this ancient race - an encounter that would have a profound effect on his life.

He was not to know then that apart from reaching the highest pinnacle of his career as a surgeon, he would become as well the foremost living authority on the Veddahs. Dr. R.L. Spittel was to be their champion and through his unstinting efforts did much to help them. Similarly, his interest in wildlife led him to crusade tirelessly for the conservation of the fauna and flora of then Ceylon.

He was as proficient with his pen as with his scalpel. His vast knowledge of Ceylon, gathered from his exhaustive travel and voracious reading, found expression in a number of excellent anthropological books and historical novels, which gained him an international reputation as an author.

These are but a few facets of this remarkable man who led life to the full despite considerable physical handicap. Dr. R. L. Spittel dedicated his life to the people and natural heritage of Ceylon. As a result, the medical profession, rural communities and all those who take pleasure from the island's wildlife and wilderness areas, have reason to be grateful to him today.

So begins the script of Surgeon of the Wilderness. My brief was to introduce the younger generation of Sri Lankans to Dr. Spittel and his work, to convey the importance of his achievements, and to evaluate his life in the context of the present and the future.

Richard Spittel disembarked from the ship at Colombo with the distinction of being newly qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. He had returned to Ceylon to take up his appointment as Third Surgeon at the General Hospital. He was in love with Clarie Van Dort, daughter of one of the country's most distinguished physicians. As fellow students they had met at the turn of the century at the Ceylon Medical College, where they both qualified as doctors. Now the year was 1910, Richard Spittel was 29 and eager to put all he had learned into practice.

Soon after commencing his career, though, he caught septicaemia as a result of operating with his naked hands. Tragically, surgical rubber gloves had not then reached Ceylon. Fourteen operations and nine months later, his shoulder was disfigured and permanently immobilised. It seemed to be Richard Spittel's destiny, however, to win against seemingly insurmountable odds.

In boyhood he had suffered an accident to his left arm, which had lost him the free use of his elbow and fingers. Now he had to accept the fact that he had two disfigured arms. Yet incredibly, his determination was such that he was able to resume his career as a surgeon, his surgical skills unimpaired and undiminished.

But then he came from tough, pioneering stock. In 1760 the first Spittel was to land in the spice island of Zeilan, after sailing from Holland in the service of the Dutch East India Company. The second son of a family of nine, Richard was born in 1881 at Tangalle. His father was a Provincial Surgeon whose favourite pastime was to commune with nature. It was he who was largely responsible for Richard Spittel's love for the jungles and their inhabitants.

Amazingly, at one time Richard Spittel had been a keen hunter. After septicaemia, though, he was no longer able to shoot - nor indeed did he wish to. Paradoxically, like many who have hunted, he was to become a fervent wildlife conservationist. At some point the innocence of nature strikes the hunter with unexpected force. In Richard Spittel's case it came after killing a deer and then finding to his self-disgust a young fawn standing nearby. It was one of many jungle scenes that he would capture in his poignant poetry:

The Wounded Doe

A hunter, happening on a glade,
Beheld a quietly browsing doe
That rooted gaze with eyes afraid
At levelled gun but feared to go.
The gun sang death - but even her pain
Gave to her halting feet no wing:
The woods rang out to death again,
Again the poor beast felt the sting.
She ambled off some screen to find -
While from the scrub leapt to her side
A gentle, frightened, little hind
The man till then had not espied.
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.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to come across a personal copy of Richard Spittel's privately published and rare volume of poetry, entitled Leaves of the Jungle (Colombo: 1953). This heartfelt anthology celebrating the wild Ceylon that Spittel understood so well is dedicated to his daughter, Christine. Allan Cameron - a tea planter - superbly illustrates the work. Richard Spittel's poetic vision is evident throughout his verse. Contained in this slim volume are some of the finest poems ever written about the island, such as To the Elephants Doomed at the Kraal, The Wounded Doe, To a Veddah Child Suffering from Hydrophobia, Do You Remember Us? and Hail Lanka!

To the Elephants Doomed at the Kraal (excerpts)

Hail, O ye wild ones,
Now we come nigh you
Lords of our jungles,
Pride of our land.
Your day like the mammoths',
Declines to its ending,
Your forests resound
To engines of man.
That's in the future:
But now do we hound you
For pride in the chasing
And lust for the show.
Afar in your arbours,
Songful with wild birds,
Heard you no omens
Of anguish and woe?
Pardon O doomed ones,
The wrongs that we do you:
Lords of our jungles,
Pride of our land.

The hunter turned conservationist had to find a new and definitive objective in his beloved jungles. During his long months in hospital he had remembered, as if in a dream, his first encounter with a Veddah. He consequently read the anthropological study of the race by Professor C. G. Seligmann, published in 1911. One passage struck him forcefully. "Here," Professor Seligmann wrote, "are at least four families living the life their forefathers had lived for generations without perceptible change."

It excited him more than anything had in a long time. Here in Ceylon was one of the most anthropologically important types of the human race. And at that time, of course, little scientific information was known about them. Richard Spittel became obsessed with finding the Veddahs and learning as much about them as he could.

When he had married Clarie Van Dort he warned her that he would visit the jungles whenever he had leave. She had come to accept the fact that the wilderness renewed and invigorated his spirit. Now he planned a voyage of exploration few had ever attempted at that time - a journey up the Mahaweli Ganga by canoe. Richard Spittel's objective was Gunner's Quoin, a huge rock rising out of dense forest at Dimbulagala. Here he hoped to find the Veddahs.

His quarry was at first maddeningly elusive. Then, one day, three men approached him in single file. He saw the brief span cloths, the axe over one shoulder, the wild eyes. Though the time when they had worn tree-bark was gone, they were close examples of traditional Veddahs. Eagerly he went with them to their dwellings. He noted the rampant symptoms of malnutrition, malaria and yaws, realising that as a doctor there was much work for him to do in the future.

In addition he was aware of the need to record, before it became too late, the customs of those Veddahs living closest to the lives of their prehistoric ancestors. He understood that the forces of change that have characterised the 20th century would soon rob the Veddahs, and the world, of their cultural history. Haunted by his experience, Richard Spittel was determined that wherever there were Veddahs, he would go. It was the beginning of a long, self-imposed and committed task - the documentation of the Veddahs final phase of traditional life, as well as assistance with their transition into the modern world. It was not the cold dispassionate urge of the scientist that drove him, but a strange affinity and a strong compassion.

While Richard Spittel's written documentation of the Veddahs may be familiar to some, very few are aware that he exposed much 16mm cine footage of the tribe during the 1940s and 1950s. The unedited reels that resulted were donated to the British Museum, with copies sent to the Edinburgh Museum. Needless to say, this footage is of great anthropological significance.

During this period of his life it was as a doctor and surgeon that Richard Spittel received increasing recognition. However, he was no society physician. When he joined the General Hospital he had chosen to work in the most undesirable section - the dreaded ulcer ward with its cases of syphilis and cancer. Soon he started a private practice as a specialist of some repute in venereal disease. His studies in this field resulted in him making valuable contributions to the investigation of yaws, about which little was then known.

Surgery, however, was Richard Spittel's greatest love. He achieved wonders in conditions and with instruments that would be considered primitive and totally inadequate today. In an age when speed was vital due to the limitations of anaesthetics, he was one of the fastest - yet surest - of surgeons. Not wishing to let his surgical skills stagnate, he was to return to England to keep abreast of the latest advances and techniques. Consequently he was a pioneer, the first surgeon in this country to attempt many new life-saving operations and surgical procedures. For instance, he undertook the first skin graft in Ceylon and administered the first blood transfusion - using his own blood.

But his greatest works of healing were probably in the jungles, earning him the tag Surgeon of the Wilderness. Often he would perform emergency operations under the most difficult of conditions. His intensive treatment was almost completely to cure the people of the Vanni of venereal disease and malaria. In every corner of Ceylon the dostara hamuduruo became famous for helping the Veddahs and other remote village communities.

In addition to his professional work, Richard Spittel now wrote compulsively. The urge to preserve in print the Ceylon he knew was to become almost as great as his dedication to his profession. His first book, Wild Ceylon, published in 1924, contains an exceptional introductory verse by him 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, in spite of considerable pain, Richard Spittel was to write many other books on the Veddahs as well as historical novels of Ceylon. Some were published abroad and all generated much critical acclaim. As his works on the Veddahs appeared, his name became widely known among the leading anthropologists of the world.

The complete list of his anthropological and historical books reads: Wild Ceylon (Colombo: 1924), Far Off Things (Colombo: 1933), Savage Sanctuary (London: 1941), Vanished Trails (Oxford: 1950), Where the White Sambhur Roams (London: 1951), Wild White Boy (London: 1958) and Brave Island (Colombo: 1966), co-authored with Christine Wilson.

The Evening Gazette wrote about Where the White Sambhur Roams that the book "Out-Tarzans Tarzan" while the Manchester Evening News that it was, "In the best tradition of Ballantyne." And the reviewer at the B.B.C. Home Service said of it: "The whole story has been beautifully written. It is the best jungle book I've read since the 'Jungle Book' itself."

Apart from his considerable achievements as an author, Richard Spittel was to encourage other, aspiring writers to record the natural heritage of Ceylon. One such was the late Lala Adithiya. I first met Lala Adithiya, author of that intriguing historical travelogue, Search for Sugala (Colombo: 1980) and the unpublished manuscript Footprints in the Jungle (1981), during the research for the script.

An architect by vocation Lala was, like his mentor, a Colombo professional who hankered after the jungles. The study of his house in Melbourne Avenue showed much evidence of his devotion to the jungles. His bush hat and jacket hung from the back of the door, while camping equipment and other gear - much of which had once belonged to Spittel - filled the corners. The most interesting of Spittel's items was his travelling box, complete with all its original paraphernalia. Lala kindly loaned much of this equipment for use in the documentary, as the director (my wife Sharmini) wished to recreate several scenes of Richard Spittel on his jungle treks. I played the part of the great man, presenting a passable resemblance in long shot or with my back to the camera.

'Oh island mine, you are heaven to me'

Each book by Richard Spittel was a saga of meticulous research, the result of countless visits to the jungle. His daughter, Christine, accompanied him on some of these trips. She witnessed not only the beauty of the jungles and the lifestyles of the Veddahs but also the heavy physical toll these treks had on her father. Often he would come down with fevers and other jungle ailments. She also observed how for months prior to his treks he would collect essential items and presents for the Veddahs.

"He carried the barest equipment. A 20 foot square of canvas to be slung between two trees for a tent a simple wooden food box containing, always, some eggs, biscuits, tea, tinned milk, matches, a tin plate, a knife, fork, spoon, and a little sugar. There would be 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, who until he finally made contact with them had no clothes to cover their nakedness - except animal skins. 

Then there were medicines, malaria tablets, etc. He found the Veddahs riddled with Framboesia Tropica, a specific disease which he gave them injections for. He also took them rice, tobacco leaves, caps and gunpowder for their muzzle-loading guns (I think they had two), and axe heads." (Christine Wilson: personal communication, October 30 1986.)

One of Richard Spittel's most significant treks was in quest of the Veddah outlaw Tissahamy. Many years earlier, Tissahamy's daughter had been murdered by her husband. There followed a saga of murder and revenge in which Tissahamy was implicated. Surrounded by police, he had killed a constable before disappearing into the jungle, where he was to evade capture for over 15 years. Tissahamy finally gave himself up and after a short prison sentence, went back to live with the Veddahs. His amazing story is told in Richard Spittel's book, Savage Sanctuary.

In 1935, at the age of 53, Richard Spittel retired from government service. The Governor of Ceylon, Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs, wrote to him on the occasion: "Your work as a surgeon to the General Hospital and your association with the Medical College as Lecturer in Surgery have advanced the standard of surgical practice in Ceylon and received wide recognition."

Apart from his anthropological and historical writings, Richard Spittel was the author of three important and influential medical books - A Basis of Surgical Ward Work (Colombo: 1915), Framboesia Tropica (Colombo: 1923) and Essentials of Surgery (Colombo: 1932). For his service to medicine he was awarded first the C.B.E (Commander of the British Empire) and then the C.M.G (Companion of St. Michael and St. George). He felt so undeserving of the latter that he had to be persuaded by the Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake (who undoubtedly recommended him) to accept the honour.

Professionally, he still had his large private practice. He also ran his own nursing home, a venture in which his wife, Clarie - one of the few women doctors of the period - gave him invaluable help. The nursing home was now situated at Wycherley, the residence he had built for his family in Colombo, and which is an architectural landmark to the present day. He continued to lecture and was to be largely responsible for the emergence of a new generation of surgeons. In addition, he still operated on emergency cases throughout the island and was to remain a faithful doctor to the Veddahs for another 30 years. Now, however, he had another objective in mind.

In 1916 he had joined the Ceylon Game Protection Society - known today as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society. His enrolment was a significant event, as membership was then almost exclusively European. He was to change the very nature of the society, bringing to it new horizons and new recognition. 

From the narrow interests of game and sport, he guided the society into the wider fields of wildlife conservation and the establishment of national parks. In an age when ecology was a scarcely defined word, his aim was to protect the island's wildlife for future generations, not only for the privileged few but also for the population at large.

From being a committee member, Richard Spittel was elected the first Ceylonese president of the society. He helped to establish Wilpattu as a national park, and Ruhunu, which had for so long existed as a sportsman's reserve, changed its status. They became the wildlife sanctuaries that Richard Spittel had long envisaged.

His next ambition was to start a magazine on Ceylon's wildlife. No name has been associated so strongly with Loris as that of Richard Spittel. He was to be its editor from 1937 to 1964 with just one brief break. Possibly nothing gave him greater satisfaction, and perhaps no other writing of his served a wider purpose. Here is a continuous record of the island's national parks and wildlife, and the endeavour to save them from the depredations of man.

There is a need, I believe, to publish a collection of Spittel's Loris writings. Leafing through the 1940s and 1950s issues of the magazine turns up many of his delightful articles - on the devil bird, the dugong, the pearl fishery and the nittaewo, among many others. I have also come across a marvellous short story of his called "The Ruby," about an illusory gemstone that entraps the greedy and unwary.

One of my favourite passages from these writings is the almost mystical introductory paragraph to his article, The Pearl Banks, contained in the June 1958 issue. "Over the tranquil sea of the Gulf of Mannar the morning breeze blew fresh. The blue unruffled sheet stretched to the low horizon where it met the vast immensity of the pastel sky, with its soft cloud masses motionless as in a picture. It was a scene of breathless beauty, a glory of the firmament that whispered to the heart of man: It is God." How successful Spittel was at conveying the quintessence of the island's wilderness areas.

When the need arose, Richard Spittel would always speak out courageously. During the early 1950s, he noted with growing concern how pneumonia and other illnesses were depopulating the Veddahs. He wrote a vehement article to the press declaring that the backward communities, such as the Veddahs, Rodiyas and Kinnarayas, should receive special protection. "These pockets of degraded humanity are shameful anachronisms that should have no place in the present day world. They are festering sores in an otherwise enlightened land. It is time for the conscience of the people to be awakened to its obligations."

Although he was in his 70s, Richard Spittel pleaded their cause with D.S. Senanayake. The Prime Minister was sympathetic and as a result, the Backward Communities Welfare Board came into being. In order to make a detailed report to the government, the board of investigation, including Richard Spittel, visited every settlement in the island. This experience was an immensely fulfilling one for him as it entailed extensive travel into the very heart of Ceylon in order to help some of its most hapless inhabitants. 

"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, the Kinnarayas and the Rodiyas, whom he fought so hard to try to get equal rights for - was extraordinary. So too when he talked of the forests and the animals that he so often had to defend." (Christine Wilson: personal communication, October 30th, 1986)

As well, he was to prove to be a worthy member of his own community, the Burghers. He was to become President of the Dutch Burgher Union and contributed much to the establishment of a Burgher identity in this country.

He was nearly 85 and extremely frail when he made what was to be his last journey to see the Veddahs. He noticed that in the space of a few brief years, the Veddahs had started to cut their hair, wear sarongs and work chenas. When he had first met them, they were still hunter-gatherers. It struck him just how quickly thousands of years of evolution could be wiped out. His work for them was now done - and had not been in vain.

Richard Spittel died on September 3, 1969, at the ripe old age of 88. The following day he was buried in the Anglican section of the General Cemetery, Kanatte. The obituary notices that appeared in the Colombo press at the time correctly highlighted his unusual and multiple accomplishments:

"Dr. R. L. Spittel, the last of the great savants who dedicated their lives to explore the heritage of Ceylon, died yesterday.

"He belonged to that generation of scholars which included Dr. Andreas Nell, Dr. Lucian de Zilwa and Dr. Paul E. Peiris - all of whom, though steeped in western culture, went off the beaten tracks of clubs and tennis courts into the wilderness where the Ceylonese habits, customs, traditions, arts and crafts were studied and revealed to the world," and:

"Frail of physique but a dedicated man of scholarship, he belonged to that dwindling group who snatch a few hours from lives of strenuous professional activity to devote themselves to research.

"One of the most eminent surgeons of his day, his bias for surgery developed with medical training, as he himself candidly admitted at an interview not so long ago. 'Humanity was not the primary incentive - that came afterwards with professional practice. I felt I had a flair for surgery, the artistry and glamour of it.'

"His reputation as a surgeon was enhanced by a literary mind. He earned a name as one of Ceylon's most widely read novelists. Books by him were always something of an occasion, for Spittel was without doubt one of the best of our writers in English.

"His writings always conveyed his deep and intimate knowledge of the jungles and a deep and abiding interest in the Veddahs. In fact Dr. Spittel will, in the years to come, be best remembered as an authority on the Veddahs of Ceylon and the author of the best writings on this vanishing tribe. So much so that Dr. Spittel was one of the few besides the Veddahs themselves who could claim to have travelled deeply into their domain." 

A short time after his death, a Veddah arrived at Wycherley with tears streaming down his face. Placing his axe in front of a portrait of Richard Spittel, he began to sing to the spirits of his ancestors, the Nae Yakku. Representing the Veddahs, he was paying his last respects to his Hudu Hura. The Veddahs have good reason to be thankful to Dr. Spittel - as have we all. For his work was so wide-ranging that it has contributed to the enrichment of life of everyone in Sri Lanka today.

We persuaded a Veddah by the name of Unapane Warage Sudubandiya to travel to Colombo in order to re-enact this final scene. Shambling up Buller's Road in his span-cloth, with axe over one shoulder, he is spotted by a European lady driving a Morris Minor, who treads on the brakes and gawks at him. The Veddah stops, too, and peers in curiousity through the closed car window at the strange white woman dressed in her fashionable late-1960s frock. It is a meeting of two cultures behind glass.

The Veddah enters Wycherley and appears before the portrait of his Hudu Hura. This portrait, executed by David Paynter in 1937, was gifted to the nation in 1991 and now hangs at the Art Gallery. According to Christine and Alastair Wilson, Paynter, upon seeing the portrait after many years, declared it to be his finest. In particular, he was pleased to have captured his subject's sensitive surgeon's hands.

It is 30 years since Richard Spittel died. Much has happened to his beloved Lanka since then, much which would disturb and appal him should he return to our midst. The systematic destruction of the jungles and the wanton killing of wildlife that has occurred in that comparatively short space of time would dismay him. Even though he predicted the extinction of the wild elephant in his poem To the Elephants Doomed at the Kraal, never could he have imagined that "the pride of our land" would be machine-gunned, become the victims of landmines, and reduced to being harassed and often persecuted exhibits in national parks that are themselves facing destruction from inexorable outside forces. 

Similarly, he would be distraught at the way the Veddahs now exist, either as commercialised exhibits at Dambana or as sad misfits in the sterile atmosphere of resettlement schemes. And he would be troubled that despite his sterling work in assisting the so-called 'backward' communities, the Rodiyas and Kinnarayas are as disadvantaged and marginalised as ever. 

Yet while the land falls into decay, his legacy survives, in particular in his books and writings. Immutable, they will forever contain within their pages the grandeur and spirit of the island's lost jungles and their inhabitants. 

With a number of his books now being republished locally in English (Wild White Boy) and also translated into Sinhala (Leaves of the Jungle, Wild Ceylon), Spittel will be introduced to a new generation of readers. Hopefully his legacy will live on into the new millennium, and will induce Sri Lankans yet unborn to care for the country as he did: 


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 me.

When homeward I keel from travels afar,

And your mountains arise like wraiths from the sea,

By rose of the dawn or beam of the star:

Oh, Island mine, you are heaven to me.

And from the Peak and the table-land

That brave the blue dome's immensity,

From tree-girt shore and glittering sand,

The emerald Island calls to me.

Ancestral strains on her breezes blown

Steal out of her solitudes eerily:

The tales that are shrined in legend and stone

Are the songs the old Island sings to me.

But oh for the trails that the wild men tread,

For the hills that are haunts of the hiving bee,

For the twittering bill and the branching head:

Oh Island, wild Island, you are home to me.



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