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 Post subject: R. L. Spittel: Surgeon of the Wilderness
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 04, 2006 8:39 pm 
R. L. Spittel: Surgeon of the Wilderness

By Richard Boyle
Source: TravelSriLanka


R. L. Spittel, the surgeon, anthropologist, wildlife conservationist and author, was one of the greatest personalities Sri Lanka has produced. This tribute to an exceptional, multi-faceted man is based on the writer’s 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.

In 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.

Amazingly, at one time Richard Spittel had been a keen hunter. Like many who have hunted, though, he was to become a fervent wildlife conservationist. The hunter turned conservationist had to find a new and definitive objective in his beloved jungles. During a spell in hospital he had remembered, as if in a dream, his first encounter with a Veddah. 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.

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 there was much work for him to do in the future.

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. 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 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 he 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

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.

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.

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 the land. 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.

Richard Spittel died on September 3, 1969, at the ripe old age of 88. The obituary notices that appeared in the Colombo press at the time correctly highlighted his unusual and multiple accomplishments:
"He belonged to that generation of scholars 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."

It is 35 years since Richard Spittel died. Much has happened to his beloved Lanka since then, much which would horrify 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, 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.

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.

Read more about Dr. Spittel:
:arrow: Dr. R. L. Spittel: Surgeon of the wilderness

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