Prof Thambipillai Varagunam, MD FRCP (UK) M.Ed – A medical academic with a vision.

When I was a medical student in the seventies, the majority of my teachers were very
conservative in their approach to imparting knowledge. Although they instilled the values
and ethos required of a future doctor but were reluctant to embrace the changes to
develop the students nor did they make any attempt to nurture enquiring minds! They were
particularly loathe to question their own methods or performance.

Prof Varagunam however was an exception for he was very enthusiastic to explore new
ways of learning advocated by the Western academics who were gaining insight in to their
own abilities, calling for analysis and research in to teaching methods displaying an interest
to adopt new concepts of medical education. His enthusiasm was augmented by what he
saw & learnt in Illinois, USA where he obtained his Masters degree in Medical Education.
Simply put he was a visionary, one of its first kind in the mid sixties perhaps better
described as the doyen of medical education when he set foot in Peradeniya as a lecturer in
medicine.

On Wednesday the 7th of February 2018 generations of past medial students lined up in
Kandy to pay their last respects as the mortal remains of the late Prof Varagunam lay at the
funeral parlour. A cross section of the population from many parts of Srilanka and across
the globe mourned the passing away of the gentle giant who dedicated most of his life time
serving the faculty of medicine at Peradeniya first as an assistant lecturer moving on to
become a senior lecturer and then the Professor of Medicine, the post he held until the end
of 1979. His achievements during this period were legion. While Chairing the division of
medicine he also took over the medical education department from Prof Bibile bringing
under his wings Drs Jayawickremarajah & Palitha Abeykoon who too made their own mark
in the speciality with the former heading the department in Batticaloa and the latter taking
on the mantle as the director of WHO, South East Asia.

Thambipillai Varagunam was born in Kallady Upodai in the Eastern Region of Srilanka, on
08/11/1930 . He was the only child of the late Mr Thambipllai and the late Mrs Sellathangam
Thambipillai. Mr Thambipillai was an assistant medical practitioner ( AMP ) by profession &
was a well known philanthropist cum landed proprietor from the area. The young
Varagunam received his early education at Govt Central College, Batticaloa moving to
Royal college, Colombo where he excelled in academics and sports, Rugby being his forte.
Entering the University of Ceylon to read medicine in 1950, he qualified in 1955 taking up
training posts in Colombo North after which he left for UK to further his training. On
completing the training with a membership of the Royal College of Physicians, Varagunam
returned to Colombo to join the dept of medicine as a lecturer. His return coincided with the
establishment of the faculty of medicine at Peradeniya which he chose as his base
When the late Prof Macan Markar relinquished his duties at Peradeniya the then Vice
Chancellor of the University, the late Sir Nicholas Attygalle hand picked Varagunam as the
person to Chair the department. Varagunam reciprocated the trust Sir Nicholas placed on
him with his exemplary leadership and commitment. The modernisation of medical
education resonated well with the expectations of his students.

He entered holy matrimony in 1962 tying the knot to Miss Thayalam Sabaratnam,(daughter
of the late Dr Sabaratnam from the same province) who was to become his life long
partner & soul mate. She has been a tower of strength to him for the last 55 years.
Prof was a very compassionate man extremely popular among every one who came in to
contact with him. Sudharma Vidyatilake, his former trainee house officer and my
contemporary, currently a consultant haematologist recalls the days she would be enjoying
sumptuous meals prepared by Mrs Varagunam at their house where the juniors would
gather often. Apparently this was a routine that Prof would carry out for all his trainees
during their time spent under his tutelage.

Prof retired from the University post in 1979 when he was head hunted by the World Health
Organisation serving it in an advisory capacity as a consultant in Tropical Diseases for a
period of ten years based in Geneva. On completing this stint he returned to Kandy when
the Srilankan Government sought his help to establish the medical school in Batticaloa in
keeping with its policy of expanding University education across the country. This was a
great opportunity for the Prof to contribute to his birthplace which he loved. He jumped at
the opportunity taking on the role as the Chancellor of the Eastern Province University
steering and leading the establishment over the next ten years retiring from the post just
after 1990. The impact of the ensuing civil war on the infrastructure was such that he was
experiencing difficulties with travelling from Kandy to Batticaloa and was unable to carry on
with this mission any longer
.
Driven by humanistic principles Prof never opted to do private practice either during his
teaching career or after retirement. He was more focussed on rendering the necessary help
to the institution he served with loyalty continuing in a voluntary capacity serving as the
Chair of the medical research committee and promoting the activities of the Peradeniya
Medical School Alumni Association which he was a patron of. Troubled by peripheral
neuritis he had to cut down his activities although he remained intellectually sharp and
coherent retaining his sense of humour until he was called to rest.
Philanthropy was in his genes. He donated vast acres of ancestrally owned land in Karativu
for a hospital to be built for the local residents. In addition part of his property was acquired
by the state for the build of the current Eastern University complex. He was down to earth
and simple in his ways. Except for official duties he seldom dressed himself smart. He was
also a man of good humour. On one occasion while going through the Australian customs
he was asked if he could speak English! His response was “ I speak better English than you
mate!”

On the 4th Feb 2018 he succumbed to complications arising from prostate cancer. Fate was
such that as the nation woke up to commemorate the independence, from colonial rule, his
students , colleagues and patients began to grieve the loss of a great physician, a teacher,
a dedicated mentor and a true friend who touched several hearts.
An ebullient clinician, academic and a gentleman always displaying a pleasant disposition,
Prof Varagunam throughly enjoyed the company of his old students, a rare characteristic
for a man of his standing. I was very privileged to meet him often in the last 15 years.
Gathering with contemporaries over a meal we would often reminisce, catching up on
various topics including medical politics of Srilanka!
Last year Prof stuck a jubilant mood on the day I inquisitively touched on his ‘alma mater’
days at Royal as it was of mutual interest for I too attended the same school. It was Rugby
that he wanted to discuss! He
told me how he hooked the ball
in 1948 to help Royal beat the
Trinity Lions scoring 6-3 on the
first leg and then 8-6 on the
second leg, over powering the
Lions again at their own
grounds in Asgiriya to wrest
the Bradby Shield ( named
after a former principal of
Royal ) back to Royal College.
A remarkable feat given that
Trinity has beaten the blue and
gold boys over the previous
four years consecutively
condemning Royal Rugby to
the doldrums! So this was a
moment of Glory

The winning team ROYAL – T. Varagunam standing 4th from the left for the Royalists.
Our last meeting was at his daughter’s residence in July 2017 in the UK. After this meeting
we bid farewell planning to meet again next summer. He returned to Kandy in Aug 2017. A
few weeks later I received an email from him mourning the death of his close friend Mr
Rudra Rasaratnam ( Retired Cardio Thoracic Surgeon) a fellow Royalist of the same
vintage. He appeared very distressed at the demise of his friend for the contents of the mail
revealed the desolation he was feeling. It may well be that the solitude created by the loss
of friends of his generation was unbearable.
He leaves behind his wife Thayalam, three daughters Mira, Radha and Sita and four grand
children whose grief stricken emotions during the funeral were testimony to how much
they loved their grandfather.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was
joy.”
― Rabindranath Tagore
May his soul rest in peace.
Sati Ariyanayagam – A grateful student 1972 -1976

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About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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