Dr. W.D.L. Fernando: Men of his calibre are rare

Dr. W. D. L. Fernando Memorial Oration:

By M.S.L. Salgado

Professor Kasinathan Nadesan, Professor in Forensic Pathology at the University of Malaya, delivered the 17th Dr. W.D.L. Fernando Memorial Oration on “Victims of Violence” at the Medical Research Institute (MRI) Auditorium in Borella.

Warusahennadige David Lionel Fernando was born on November 18, 1914 and schooled at Nalanda Vidyalaya Colombo. Having obtained the Cambridge Senior Certificate which exempted him from the London Matriculation, he entered Medical College. He qualified with Honours in 1940 as a Licenciate in Medicine, Surgery and Midwifery which was a registrable qualification with the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom. This was two years prior to the amalgamation of the Medical College with the University College to form the University of Ceylon after which the degree was called MBBS.

After qualifying, he served as a Government Medical Officer in various parts of the island doing curative work and also a period in the preventive sector. In 1950 he came back to the General Hospital Colombo as Assistant Pathologist. In the next year, 1951, he was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to the Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of Edinburgh. The University of Edinburgh was the first to establish a Chair in Medical Jurisprudence in the English speaking world, by a commission issued by King George III. The incumbent Professor had been appointed to the Regius Chair in 1927 after gaining experience in Egypt. By the time Dr. Fernando commenced training, Professor Sydney Smith had been knighted as he had achieved national reputation as a forensic pathologist. He was the second and the last to be knighted for achievements in forensic medicine in the U.K. todate.

Dr. Fernando obtained Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh with Forensic Medicine as a special subject. Before returning to Ceylon he worked with Professor John Glaister at Glasgow, and in London, with Dr. Keith Simpson at Guy’s Hospital and Dr. Donald Teare at St. George’s Hospital – both of whom were awarded personal Chairs later by the University of London.

Having returned home from the U.K. in 1953, Dr. Fernando functioned as Assistant Judicial Medical Officer Colombo. Up to this time, he was known to his batchmates, colleagues and friends as ‘David’. It was later that he was better known as “WDL” for which the lawyers were responsible. In 1953 and 1954 Prof. Sir Sydney Smith came to Ceylon as a WHO Consultant, to advise the Government in setting up a Medico-Legal Service and training of personnel. The head of the Office of the JMO was Dr. P.S. Goonawardena and the two of them collaborated with Sir Sydney in his assignment. Dr P.S. Gunawardena, as JMO was beginning to implement proposals to strengthen the Medico-Legal service when he died of an unexpected natural death at the age of 55 years.

In 1956, WDL was appointed JMO Colombo as successor to Goonawardena and continued in this position up to his retirement in 1970. Although designated J.M.O. Colombo, he was, in fact, JMO Ceylon, as he was called upon by the police and courts to assist in complicated cases. It was not unusual for courts to summon him at very short notice, to obtain his opinion on a trial that was proceeding.

It was during his tenure of office that the Medico-Legal Morgue was established and equipped with refrigeration for storage of bodies. The Office of the J.M.O. which was housed in a part of the building of the Colonial Library, facing Maradana Road, (now part of the extended Anatomy Department) was also moved to the same premises in Francis Road. The housing of the office, laboratory and the autopsy room with provision of coolers to store the bodies was of great significance, as it obviated the previous practice of the JMO and his Assistants having to do autopsies in several hospitals in Colombo and in five mortuary rooms at five police stations within the city. Only the General Hospital Mortuary had refrigeration facilities up to that time.

During his long and distinguished career, he was involved in some notable criminal cases. In 1959 a young woman was found dead lying across the road between the jungle stretch of the Puttalam/Anuradhapura Road at Thimbiriwewa. WDL was called to do the post mortem of the unidentified body and found injuries, to conclude that the body had been run over at least twice. There were also injuries of the head from which he definitely concluded that this was not a death due to traffic accident. On the question of identification, a large cavity in the lower jaw found at autopsy was traced back to treatment taken by the victim at the Dental Clinic at Kandy for a dental abscess. Forensic Odontology is now a specialized subject and is widely used in disaster victim identification. The skull and lower jaw of Adeline Witharane was separated from the body and taken to Colombo. WDL got the assistance of Mr. George Webster of the University Forensic Department to do a superimposition of the skull and jaw with an enlarged photograph of the victim, which matched. Another notable feature in this case was that the accused, a teacher by the name of Anandagoda, revisited the scene of crime the following day, covering a distance of about 270 miles to reassure himself that the crime would pass undetected. This case was referred to as the Wilpattu Murder.

Another case in which WDL played a prominent role is in the convicting of Alfred de Zoysa for the murder of A.K.D. Perera and burning his body in the Kalattawa jungle. In this case, there was no body to do a post mortem examination. What he was asked to examine were 123 pieces of charred bones collected by the Head Quarters Inspector, S.B.W. de Silva (who is Secretary-General of the 9th INPALMS Congress now), of Anuradhapura in March 1967. Another 100 pieces found by the Government Analyst at the site were also forwarded to WDL. From these productions, WDL was able to identify that some of the bones were human and that some pieces were from the human skull.

In this, he sought the assistance of Professor Lester Jayawardena of the Anatomy Department of the Medical College. The notable feature in this case was that there was no body as such and the myth that it is necessary to have a body to establish murder was proved false. Superb team work between the Forensic Scientist of the Government Analyst’s Department along with the JMO and an Anatomist from the University, along with the investigative skills of the Police, led by the Anuradhapura HQI, resulted in the conviction of Alfred de Zoysa and his accomplices. A number of other notable cases in which he figured in are on record and WDL in his Foundation Lecture of the Ceylon College of Physicians spoke on the topic “Dead Men Tell Tales”.

L.V. Podiappuhamy, alias Dodampe Mudalali of Ratnapura, was taken to the fourth floor of the Secretariat Building on 15.4.1966 in connection with an alleged coup d’etat against the Government. In the early hours of the 16th, Dodampe Mudalali fell to his death from the fourth floor and WDL did the post-mortem in this case. He concluded that death was due to injuries sustained as a result of a fall from a height.The Magistrate held an inquest and returned a verdict of suicide.

Thereafter, more evidence was led and the Magistrate altered the verdict of suicide to one of culpable homicide. Although Inspector Seneviratne of the CID made an application to the Supreme Court for revision of the verdict, Justice Tennakoon refused the application and made critical comments on the conduct of the inquest which were of great legal importance. Although a Commission of Inquiry was held later into the circumstances of Dodampe Mudalali’s death, WDL’s findings and conclusions were not flawed.

Another case of interest is the case of the murder of two children, a brother and sister, and the disposal of the two bodies by the mother and her paramour under the hearth. Much later, when the bodies were discovered, WDL travelled to Anuradhapura and recovered the mummified bodies. He was able to make an identification, state the age and show that both had been malnourished. These two bodies are preserved in the Museum of the Office of the JMO Colombo.

In whatever capacity he functioned, WDL showed devotion to the subject and was meticulous in observing the highest standards that were expected of the Office he held.

WDL held many prestigious positions. He was President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, President of the Medico-Legal Society, President, Ceylon Cancer Society, Vice President, Ceylon Medical Council, Vice President Ceylon College of Physicians, Vice President, Organization of Professional Associations and President of the GMOA.

He was interested in cultivation of orchids and was a member of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon. He was a member and later President of the Sri Lanka Natural History Society.

He was a good family man and confirmed to all moral obligations assisted by his charming wife Ethel and sole offspring, daughter Kamalini, who was born in Edinburgh. He would have been proud of his daughter’s progress in her career in the Ministry of Justice and that of his son-in-law who was recently appointed Attorney General of Sri Lanka.

WDL fulfilled all the expectations of his teacher and confidant, Professor Sir Sydney Smith, as expressed to this writer, in Edinburgh.

Men of his calibre are indeed, rare to find