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Biographical entry Spittel, Richard Lionel (1881 - 1969)

CMG 1950; CBE 1942; MRCS 1908; FRCS 1910; LMS Ceylon 1905; LRCP 1908.

9 December 1881
Tangalle, Ceylon
3 September 1969
General surgeon, Plastic surgeon and Writer


Richard Lionel Spittel was born on 9 December 1881 in Tangalle, a town on the south coast of Ceylon, where his father Dr F G Spittel was stationed at that time as Government Medical Officer. He entered the Ceylon Medical College at the turn of the century, and qualified LMS Ceylon in 1905. He entered the Government Service and was appointed house surgeon to the second surgeon of the General Hospital, Colombo, Dr S C Paul. After serving this appointment, Spittel left for England and joined King's College, London and the London Hospital. He returned to Ceylon on 25 January 1910, with the qualification FRCS, and was appointed third surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo.

Spittel threw himself whole heartedly into his new duties, but tragedy was soon to overtake him. On 10 April of that year he was stricken with septicaemia. The excruciating pain from cellulitis of his left arm, the reddened tender tag of skin overhanging his left thumb nail gave evidence of the route of the infection, and he recollected with dread that he had dressed a case of erysipelas eighteen hours earlier. He was semi-conscious on the second week of this illness and spent four months on a water bed, in continued pain which only morphia could relieve.

He returned to work on 17 February 1911, with an ankylosed left shoulder. He had had from boyhood a disability at his left elbow from a fracture which limited the movement of this elbow. These two physical disabilities would have daunted most men, but Spittel returned to his duties with zest. Although the long list of operations at each session at the General Hospital made severe demands on his strength Spittel never once failed to complete his lists.

He was meticulous in regard to his duties and devoted the same care and attention to the cases in his ulcer ward, as he did to what others call the "interesting case". It was in his ulcer ward that he observed the beneficial cleansing effects of maggots in festering sores. This observation long antedated the reports of this in the literature. It was in the ulcer ward that he observed the lesions of Framboesia tropica. These observations were set forth in his book Framboesia tropica which was, and still is, a standard text.

In his teaching, he gave as much attention to the apothecary students who did a short two years course at the Ceylon Medical College, as he did to the medical students. His book Essentials of surgery was written for the apothecary students. It is not a synopsis of elementary surgery; it is a masterly account of the principles of surgery and it had a wide appeal.

Miss Claribel Van Dort was a fellow student with Spittel at the Ceylon Medical College. After qualification he suddenly fell in love with her, but waited six long years before he proposed marriage and was accepted. They had two daughters, one died at two years of age, and the other, Mrs Christine Wilson, survived him. She inherited her father's gift for writing, and has many books to her credit. Father and daughter together wrote the novel Brave island.

After his severe illness, needing a break from time to time from his arduous duties as surgeon, Spittel took to making trips to the jungles of Ceylon, and inspired by Seligman's work on the Veddahs, he sought out these people in their remote forests, where they still lived in the bow and arrow age. Spittel lived in the jungle with the Veddahs, he treated their ailments, he learnt their jungle lore. He was loved by them and they looked to him as their white chief.

It was Spittel's interest in the wild life of Ceylon and in the Veddahs that brought out his gift as a writer. His novels - Wild Ceylon, Far off things, Savage sanctuary, Where the white sambur roams, Wild white boy and Leaves of the jungle, a book of poems, gave Spittel a place in English literature.

After the first world war Spittel had been to England and Europe from time to time and on his return from these visits, he revitalised the surgery of Ceylon. He introduced rubber gloves, he persuaded the Director of Medical Services to provide shadowless lamp and pedestal operating tables in the operating theatres. Inspired by Gillies's work at Sidcup, he introduced plastic surgery to Ceylon. He introduced the 'no touch technique' and for this designed a combined needle holder and scissors for introducing the cutting sutures. He had successfully fused spines with bone chips, before the advent of the Albee spinal fusion operation with bone grafts, and he enthusiastically took to the Albee operation when it came out.

He was a great surgeon. A frail man with the heart of a lion he accomplished a great deal in his life. His name will always be linked with that of his motherland Ceylon. He died peacefully on 3 September 1969, aged 87 years.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1969, 4, 241].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England