Legacy of Dr. Samuel Green: The first medical school in Ceylon | Sunday Observer

Legacy of Dr. Samuel Green: The first medical school in Ceylon

Green Memorial  hospital staff -1905
Green Memorial hospital staff -1905

For decades the Northern Province has been closely associated with the pursuit of knowledge. The accumulation of wisdom has been a priority for these youth. During a visit in 2013 I went sightseeing with Victor Jeyakumar. The tall palmyra trees standing in clusters are the typical snapshot of Jaffna.

As we reached Manipay, he stopped his car and showed me a building saying ‘this was the first medical college in Ceylon”. The present day building did have a colonial touch that is normally associated with old structures, displaying large stone columns.

Again in 2016, I passed this building. It was only this year after much inquiry that I stumbled on some facts from a book given to me by a retired Director General of Rehabilitation. The legend of Dr. Samuel Fisk Green is a story of dedication, determination and above all a genuine man who cared for other humans.

One must realise that there was no competition to get into medical school, like today. Long before Dr. Green set foot in the island, the ancient sages had passed on the treatments of the native ayurvedha to their aspiring young students.

The lifestyle of the people was definitely healthier as they lived in natural surroundings, eating fresh food. Samuel Green's greatest challenges were to first convince the people of the efficacy of western medicine, and secondly he had to learn to speak the local language. Can you imagine a westerner teaching medicine in Tamil? This is what Dr. Green did and he is venerated as the father of medical science in many parts of the North, while sadly his amazing medical mission is not known to people in other parts of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Green

Samuel Green was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA in 1822. When he was 11 years old his mother died. As a school boy he was often sick.

Rev. Dr. Skinner was one of his mentors. By 1841 he joined the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

He completed his studies in March 1845. By the following year he was keen to sail to a foreign land that would have greater need of his medical practice. As a doctor he chose to travel overseas as a medical missionary. He reached our shores sailing on the ship Jacob Perkins from Boston. The voyage took 4 months.

The American Ceylon Mission, known as ACM was the pioneer Christian mission agency doing work in Ceylon. They established the first boy’s school in 1816, Union College, Tellipalai.

In 1820, they set up the first printing press. By 1841 the first Tamil newspaper Uthaya Tharakai was published and the English edition rolled out as the Morning Star long before newspapers were printed in Colombo.  Today, the ACM in Sri Lanka is known as - the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI). Dr. Green came to Ceylon in 1847 and served at the ACM Centre in Vaddukkodai, Jaffna. In 1848 he was tranferred to Manipay. During this time he made great effort and learnt the Tamil language.

He already knew Latin, German and French. One of the reasons for this was, that he realised that his Tamil students would return to work in Tamil speaking villages, thus it was practical to teach them in their own language. However, years later medical students were competent in English, and as soon as they graduated they left for government employment which had better prospects. Samuel Green spent many months writing the medical syllabus in Tamil. He published medical books in Tamil that covering almost 4000 pages.

In 1847 there was a significant “medical” moment that gave the momentum to Dr. Green. There was a Tamil teacher Mr.Mututamby, who taught the language to Europeans. He was taken ill and the native medicine could not cure him. In desperate need he was taken to the ‘white doctor’ Samuel Green. Soon, a surgery was performed to remove an abscess in the abdomen. The patient’s bowels were cleaned. The patient recovered. Soon, the people of Jaffna looked upon Dr. Green as a great healer.

The main illnesses to afflict the people those days were small pox, cholera, oral cancer (as they chewed on betel) and a tropical fever which left the spleen enlarged. Dr. Green was rather amazed to see the old Tamil custom of bathing after rubbing oneself in herb infused oil. It was an era when even men wore two ear rings on each ear.

The first three medical students (Western medicine) in Ceylon were Joshua Danforth, J. Dennison and J. Waittilingam in 1848. Dr. Waittilingam went onto become the Assistant Colonial Surgeon of Ceylon.

Medical Books

The medical students of the class of 1861 adopted English names- Karthekesar (M.Hitchcock), Etheranayakam (C.T.Mills), Swaminather (S.W.Nathaniel), Kanakadattinam (L.S. Strong) Vaittilingam (D.W.Chapman) and Appapilly (William Paul). These name changes were a reflection of their baptism, as most were originally Hindu students. The class of 1872, was left in shock when Dr. Green decided to leave Ceylon.

Printing books in Tamil language was a challenge. At that time the Batticotta Seminary (located in Vaddukoddai, Jaffna) had produced Tamil literature. By 1851, Samuel Green began translating the medical book Anatomy, Physiology and Hygiene by Dr. Calvin Cutter. After faithfully serving the people of Ceylon and uplifting the teaching of medicine Dr. Samuel Green left Ceylon in March 1873, on the ship Good Hope with his wife Margaret and their four children. He wanted to return to Ceylon, but the Mission Board said no.

Even after leaving Ceylon he helped other doctors by proof reading their medical books. His text books were also used in India. Dr. Green died and was buried in the USA. He came to Ceylon as a young man. This is a wonderful inspiration on how young people can rise up in any profession and impact the lives of others. The medical school turned hospital, founded by Dr, Green has been in operation for 170 years. The legacy he left behind continues to heal others.