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Biographical entry Gabriel, Anthony (1925 - 2007)

MRCS and FRCS 1955; MB BS Sri Lanka 1950; FRCS Edin 1955; Hon FDS Sri Lanka 1989; Hon FSLCS 1990; Hon FDS 1993.

10 January 1925
21 December 2007
Colombo, Sri Lanka
General surgeon


Tony Gabriel was formerly the senior surgeon at the Cancer Hospital, Maharagama, Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was born in London on 10 January 1925 and died in Colombo on 21 December 2007 after a short illness, a few days before his 83rd birthday. He was described by one writer ‘as a person who loved the wilds as much as he loved people’. This emphasised two facets in the life of a most remarkable man: he had a love of Sri Lanka and its natural beauty, and was a surgeon who was proud of his connections with our college. What had been a one-way traffic of doctors coming from Ceylon to the United Kingdom to train was reversed in Tony’s case: many trainees went from this country to learn the finer points of facio-maxillary surgery from him.

He was the only son of a distinguished ‘Ceylonese’ surgeon, Vrasapillai Gabriel, who undertook part of his training at the London Hospital. His father married Florence Mary McColloch, a nursing sister at the London, who was ‘a gentle Irish lady’. Vrasapillai Gabriel came from a well known northern family who were hereditary administrators at the time of the British Raj and was the first Ceylonese to gain the membership of the Royal College of Physicians.

Tony’s parents made sure that their son imbibed everything Sinhalese: many holidays were spent in various parts of the country mixing with local people. He and his father travelled the country from Galle to Jaffna, where Tony received part of his education during the Second World War at St Patrick’s College. They often camped under canvas and shot their own food. This acquaintance with rural life helped him to understand the problems of many of the population who later came to him for professional advice.

Tony entered medical school in Colombo with 60 others, including eight females. He studied anatomy under the stern but amiable P K Chanmugam, physiology with Columbine and A C E Koch, and biochemistry with A A Hoover. During his clinical studies Anthony Gabriel forged many friendships, but developed a particularly strong connection with Ananda Soysa and his future wife Priyana (now emeritus professor of paediatrics at the University of Colombo). One surgical clerkship these friends undertook was under Anthony’s father, Vrasapillai Gabriel, who was an early exponent of gastric and biliary surgery and pioneer of spinal anaesthesia in Colombo. Gabriel senior was a hard task master who demanded high standards from all his students. Tony always addressed him as ‘Sir’ and in return was called ‘Mr Gabriel’.

He qualified in 1950 with first class honours, the Van der Straten silver medal in public health, and the Dadhabhoy gold medal in obstetrics and gynaecology. He was house surgeon to Milroy Paul, assistant lecturer in anatomy at the Ceylon Medical College and passed the primary FRCS in Colombo, when an examining team came from Lincoln’s Inn Fields for the purpose.

Tony completed his FRCS in the United Kingdom at Edinburgh and in London, and in 1955 returned to Ceylon as a resident surgeon at the General Hospital in Colombo. He later undertook consultant posts in Badulla, Jaffna and Galle. He was a conscientious surgeon with an impeccable technique who developed a special interest in maxillo-facial work. He won a fellowship to Berlin to expand his repertoire in this and soon became widely recognised for his expertise in head and neck cancer. From 1971 at Maharagama he transformed the outlook of the institution into a dynamic centre, with surgery and radiotherapy working side by side. As chairman of the board of study in surgery he was instrumental in getting oncology recognised as a specialty by the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. In the UK he was recognised as an excellent tutor by many trainee oral and facio-maxillary surgeons, for which he was made an honorary fellow of the British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (BAOMS) in 1993.

Anthony Gabriel produced many publications, was much in demand as a lecturer and gave several eponymous orations. He was president of the Sri Lanka College of Surgeons in 1986 and served on the Ceylon Medical Council, the Health Council, Cancer Control Council and the Postgraduate Board of Surgical Studies. He examined for the MS in surgery and in dental surgery.

He married Jeevamany Kadirgamar in 1957 and they celebrated their golden wedding in May 2007. They had two sons, Sanjeev and Harin, both of whom studied at the University of Hull. The elder obtained a masters degree in law and the younger, a business degree.

He had many interests outside medicine. He was an active and practising Roman Catholic. A natural athlete, in his early days he swam for his school, and played cricket and tennis. Later he became a golfer and was president of the Royal Colombo Golf Club. He was active in the Wildlife Society. He was a fine actor, with a commanding presence. He was commanding officer of the Sri Lanka Army (Volunteer) Medical Corps during its centenary year, with the rank of full colonel.

In retirement, he bought a coconut plantation north-west of Colombo, which gave him much pleasure until his death in 2007. He is survived by his wife and their two sons.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Jeevamamy Gabriel; Mahendra Ratnaweera; C S Sinnatamby; John Vandridge-Ames; Venture Forth Group; BMJ 2008 336 1077; Lives 5, 126, Sunday Observer].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England