Healer who lit the way for the poor

Prof. Senaka W. Bibile’s 32nd death anniversary was yesterday:

By Stanley E. Abeynayake

(September 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A medical professor “par excellence” Senaka W. Bibile passed away 32 years ago in remote Guyana in the West Indies apparently of a heart attack on September 29, 1977. Other than being a renowned professor of pharmacology, socialist, humanitarian, he was the founder chairman of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. He was a popular teacher in the faculties of medicine in Colombo and Peradeniya. His affable ways, kind words, subtle ways of explaining the subject endeared himself to the medical students of his day.

The Bibiles were well-known families in the Uva-Wellassa region once under-developed vast territories now the prosperous districts of Badulla and Moneragala.

Born on February 13, 1920 at Ahangama, Kataluwa his mother’s village, he was named Senaka William Bibile.

His father was Charles William Bibile, a landed proprietor of Bibile Walauwa in the rural village in the Uva Province. Senaka’s mother was Sylvia Jayawardena of “Atatagewatte Walauwa” Kataluwa, Ahangama close to Weligama and Matara towns in the Southern Province.

Young Senaka was admitted to the prestigious Trinity College, Kandy. He put up in the college hostel managed as that of an English public or “grammer” school during the British regime.

His happiness at Trinity was short-lived for Senaka’s father died. In consequence to that calamity, he got into financial straits. The Principal having come to know about that pathetic situation sought the financial assistance of a wealthy philanthropist in Kandy. His endeavour was successful.

That wealthy gentleman readily agreed to help that boy in distress. Trinity College centenary magazine records his various achievements and talents and mentions of his winning the biology prize in which subject he excelled. To qualify as a medical doctor he entered the Faculty of Medicine, in Colombo, University of Ceylon, then known as the Medical College. It should be noted that as a medico he was a beneficiary of the free education scheme - “the priceless pearl” launched by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Education Minister. As a medico his life was not a bed of roses. Taking board and lodging in an average hotel in Borella close to the Medical College, he subsisted on frugal meals and tightened his belt. He had to sleep on a wooden bed.

Diligent medico

Senaka, the diligent medico burnt the mid-night oil and in course of time passed the MBBS final with first class honours. He also won the much coveted Dadabhoy prize for medicine and Rockword Gold Medal for Surgery.

After completing his internship at the National Hospital, Colombo then known as the General Hospital, he was posted as the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Bingiriya, a secluded village in the Kurunegala district. In that capacity he also worked as visiting medical officer (MO) at Bingiriya and Hettipola hospitals, soon he got an appointment as Lecturer in Pharmacology, Colombo Medical Faculty, whilst functioning as a medical teacher he did a research on “Health of Sri Lankans and their dietary habits” along with Professor H. Columbine (Physiology) of the Medical Faculty.

Winning a scholarship, the talented lecturer proceeded to the University of Edinburgh - U.K. and obtained the Ph.D. in Pharmacology cum laude with merit.

Returning to the Motherland in 1951, he resumed his duties in lectureship. His honesty and integrity paved the way for him to become the Head of the Pharmacology Department in 1954. When the new Faculty of Medicine was set up at the Peradeniya University, Professor Senaka Bibile was chosen as the first Dean of the faculty.

A socialist while attending classes, clinics and demonstrations and preparing tutorials the pensive mood of that calm and quiet medico induced him to indulge in thoughts of oppression, poverty exploitation of mankind the lifestyles of haves and have-nots. The anti-capitalist theories of marxism leninism, communism of Engels attracted his attention.

A favourite political slogan of his that was often uttered by him was at the tip of his tongue - “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau).

During the vacations he used to go to remote Bibile, Badulla, his hometown and saw to the needs of poverty stricken peasants. With the money saved in Colombo he helped the poor and sick in his village to purchase drugs. The produce from his lands specially paddy was distributed to the people in need.

From his medical student days he was closely associated with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and came into contact with intellectual stalwarts of the Party such as Dr. N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardena, Dr. Osmund Jayaratne, Edmund Samarakkody, Doric D’ Soysa, V. Caralasingham, V. Satchithanandan and the student leaders - Stanley Tillekeratne and K. Shinya.

Communalizing was anathema to that University Don. He never differentiated or discriminated against any person whether Sinhala, Tamil or Moor.

Any human being was a ‘homosapiens’ to him. Unlike several medical doctors bent on solely making money and who hero worship the mighty rupee that “don” of many parts was involved in many facets of life.

A kind-hearted gentleman to the finger tips, unassuming, unpretentious, his interests ranged from medicine, radical political views of the leftists, melodious sweet music, aesthetic amateur photographer, love of nature, horticulture and even the niceties of cookery. That connoisseur of everything beautiful in life was also in the habit of discussing the art of cooking delicious dishes with various flavours to satisfy different palates.


The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government that came into power in 1970 entrusted the task of formulating a State Pharmaceutical policy to Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe, Communist Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Akuressa and Professor Senaka Bibile.

Previously in 1956 the first Woman Health Minister Wimala Wijewardena of the MEP Government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike endeavoured in this stupendous work. It became an utter failure.

Again the Health Minister Baduiddin Mahamud in 1960 followed suit that too was a flop. The reason was obvious.

The multi-millionaire drugs manufacturers and dealers surreptitiously used all their contrivances to abort this progressive step to dispose of medicinal drugs reasonably and fairly.

To the rescue of Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, MP and Professor Senaka Bibile the Minister in charge of pharmaceuticals at that juncture T.B. Subasinghe stepped in boldly and faced the opposition of affluent monopolistic drug dealers both local and foreign.

The state drugs report prepared by the medical duo was presented to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on March 23, 1971. Its main proposal out of the five suggestions was to create the state monopoly of the import of pharmaceuticals.

Their report resulted in the establishment of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation on September 22, 1971. The obvious choice for its first chairmanship was Professor Senaka Bibile. Then onwards his life became perilous at the hands of the drugs vested interests.

At the very outset of assuming duties as the Chairman of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation, he had the audacity to point out that a tablet imported to Sri Lanka at two cents by the private sector was sold at the exorbitant price of 92 cents.

Until then the same drug had been available in the country under a variety of brand names, the only purpose of which was to enrich a host of completing importers and manufacturing multi-millionaire nationals as well as their agents. For instance, at that time there were 23 brands of tetracycline on the market. With the substitution of generic names, sanity was once introduced into the field of pharmaceutical business. During the first year of its existence the Professor Chairman was able to save Rs. 60 million by way of foreign exchange to our country as far as drugs dealings were concerned. The Pharmaceutical Corporation was able to reduce the number of drugs imported from over 4,000 to 171.

Facing opposition

The private sector drug business was diverted to the corporation. Like most innovators, Senaka faced his share of opposition. Time and again his motives were questioned by those who had much to lose by the changes he had initiated. But the greatness of the man lay in his uncompromising struggle to defend what he genuinely felt and knew to be the correct and only scientific approach to pharmaceutical management. He made enemies and those who knew him and these were legion - respected and admired the grit and determination he displayed in what was in fact a social struggle against privilege and vested interests in the world of medicine.


The success of his endeavours was proved by the fact that Sri Lanka was held up by the fifth Non-Aligned Conference in Colombo, 1994 as model to be emulated by other developing countries in the rationalization of the system of drugs procurement and provision.

While serving as the duty conscious chairman of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation he also functioned simultaneously as the Professor of Pharmacology at the Peradeniya Medical Faculty in his inimitable way. An extrovert his lectures were not baring and the medicos listened to him attentively with pin-drop silence. When most of the “days” in his time were extroversion, reticent and reserved, his demeanour was flexible. He was always accessible to his “Charges” - the students. The service offered by him as the SPC Chairman was ex-gratia - without accepting allowances, emoluments or even the use of the official motor-vehicle. Also, a trade union was formed there at his investigation. To cut the unnecessary expenses of the board meetings, he served those present with “plain-tea” and “waddais”. He also organized “Pirith” ceremonies and danas - alms-giving Consultant - UNCTAD.

A prophet is often without honour in his own country. So much so, the UNCTAD invited him to advise thirteen third world countries on the re-organization of pharmaceutical management.

On April 24, 1977 he arrived in Geneva accompanied by his loving, devoted wife, Leela and accepted the assignment as the senior consultant on that subject for a period of eight-months. For that assiduous and hazardous task he availed himself of his sabbatical leave from the Peradeniya University. Initially, in Geneva he prepared drugs policy drafts for Malaysia, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Then onwards he became inimical to drugs manufacturers and dealers. He was undaunted of the imminent dangers to his life. He was, as it were under the “Sword of Damocles”.

From there he took flight to Barbados on August 26, 1977 to prepare drugs programs for the Caribbean islands of Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Ominicia, Grenada, Antigua, Puertorica and Gujana, all tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea - the West Indies. In Barbados, the wife of a medical doctor’s whispered to the ear of Senaka’s wife Leela to the effect that the antagonistic greedy multi-millionaire drugs businessmen might put an end to his precious life. She also advised the couple to return to Sri Lanka at the earliest possible time. But fate decreed otherwise.

True to that gossiping advice, Senaka and Leela were invited to a dinner party. Soon after that party, the Professor was suddenly taken ill. He was hospitalised for a cardiological malady. He succumbed to that heart-attack on September 29, 1977 without proper medical attention in far often George town, Guyana. His remains were cremated on a small pyre. The ashes were brought to Sri Lanka and they were placed in an urn and interred at the Jawatta, Colombo cemetery on October 08, 1977.

Tragic end

Thus ended the invaluable, priceless life of an excellent patriotic son of the soil - Sri Lanka, an unsurpassed humanist, a “Jeevaka” (a medical genius) to the medicos and the ordinary fellow - countrymen alike.

It is evident by a quantum of evidence that he was the victim of a cruel conspiracy hatched by foreign vested interests in the past as it also happens in the present against developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and South America. Professor Senaka Bibile was affectionately known as “Bibs” among his close colleagues. He was a genuine humanist, a lover of mankind. The whole world will stand up and say that this was a man.

The pioneer of the Australian Pharmaceutical Policy Board, Dr. Hart remarked thus in 1993 when he arrived in Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka is the summit of a mountain. Senaka Bibile is a glittering lamp on that top. By the glow of that light we, the other countries formulated the drugs policies.

-Sri Lanka Guardian