Colombo Medical Faculty: Iconic landmark a home for healers | Sunday Observer

Colombo Medical Faculty: Iconic landmark a home for healers

19 February, 2017

Today, there are several medical faculties in State universities islandwide, but only one of them comes to mind immediately. That is the Colombo Medical Faculty built in 1870, more commonly known as the Colombo Medical College. It is a historic, landmark building in Colombo (in the Punchi Borella locality) that glistens in pristine white.

It was initially a medical college which became a part of the University of Ceylon. It began with just 30 students. It is the second oldest medical school in Asia, the first being Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in India. The equally well known Peradeniya medical faculty is the second oldest in the country.

Professor Jennifer Perera, Dean of the Colombo Medical Faculty says that Sri Lankan students went to the Calcutta Medical College until 1820, and the Medical Faculty in Colombo was established to produce more doctors in the country. However, women were given admission only about a decade later.

At first, medical degrees were awarded by the General Medical Council (GMC) of the United Kingdom (UK). The GMC gave the Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery (LMS) degree which was the licensing examination for practising medicine in Sri Lanka that was also recognized by the UK. Sri Lankan doctors could practise in UK without having to sit for another qualifying examination like they do now.

Professor Perera says that this colonial-era building is special because it is the forerunner of all medical faculties in Sri Lanka. The other medical faculties look up to them for leadership. It is also special because of the traditions and history. She explains: “the students who come here are a little above the average, particularly in relation to their qualifications, because we take students only on merit. That places us on a special position which is not on a district basis. It is not that we deprive district level students from coming in, it is just that they cannot enter because there are so many merit students whose first preference is for Colombo.”

According to the Times (of UK) world rankings of universities this year, the Colombo medical faculty is ranked within the first 1000. The architectural features of the building include high ceilings which are almost double the usual height. They have built another ceiling below this ceiling to fix lights and modernize the building. But these modifications have not been carried out in other buildings of the faculty. Each building contains only three floors including the ground floor, but because of the height of each floor, the building looks very tall. Actually six floors can be built in each of these buildings, but they have only three and they do not want to change it because rather than changing and breaking and building again they decided to construct a new 17 storey building at the back to accommodate the increasing number of students and additional needs of the faculty and students.

The original Medical College building is unique in Sri Lanka as well as South Asia because it shows fine British architecture. The upcoming building has the same architecture with wooden windows up to the third floor. But for maintenance purposes the rest of the building is constructed with contemporary local architecture. Professor Perera says that from what she has seen overseas she sees many similarities. “I went overseas for postgraduate studies and I can really relate to the architecture there because they look alike.”

Professor Perera says that the facilities available for staff are not adequate and they are dependent on state funding and foreign grants. There is so much required in the government sector but they try to make the best use of the available facilities and try to generate their own money through research grants. The staff does very high quality research and therefore various organisations want to give them grants.

She says, “In recent times the government has been very generous with grants. But not during the past three decades because money was pumped into the war and education was neglected including research. But of course now they are giving us more money to conduct research because a knowledge based economy is their buzzword, and I hope this will continue. The facilities in terms of finances for infrastructure are minimal. We get most of our equipment from research grants. The National Science Foundation and the National Research Council give us grants.”

The hospital facilities are shared with the Ministry of Health. They have their own professorial units inside the hospital. But the student study area is very small and it does not look like a university. They are trying to maximize giving them more study areas and that is why it was decided to construct a new building so that they can have more study areas. The library was built at a time when a batch had only 60 students. But now they have about 200 medical students in each batch, and more than 200 postgraduate students. In addition, Allied Health Science students and Physiotherapy students also use the library. Therefore, it is a little crowded and when the new building comes up they would be dedicating an entire floor to the library with modern technology, computer facilities and discussion rooms in one floor.

Hostel facilities are available for outstation students, and there are around 600 students at any given time. Professor Perera says, “If we plan to increase the intake then we have to build more hostels, and the hostel has to be close to the hospital. Space would be an issue because there is hardly any space in the university to build new hostels, but for the moment we are managing.”

They cannot increase the number of Allied Health science students although there is a requirement to increase it because of the lack of space which is an issue. That is why the new building is coming up. She further explains: “we have dedicated three floors for the Allied Health Sciences so that we can expand on other specialties of Allied Health. There are currently only physiotherapy students.”

Professor Perera says, “There are separate rooms for clinical and practical studies such as the clinical skills room where students practice on mannequins before they go into the wards. After the initial training the students practice with patients in the hospitals as the number of beds is more than adequate for the students to practice. We can accommodate more students but the housing facilities are limited.” It is indeed a rare privilege to get an opportunity to study in this magnificent building and become a doctor.

Pic: Kelum Liyanage