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69th death anniversary of Dr. Emmanuel Roberts : 

A legend of his time

by Karel Roberts Ratnaweera

It is not everyone's good fortune to see all four of one's grand parents; in this writer's case, I was never to see both grandfathers.

October 17 marked the 69th Death Anniversary of Dr Emmanuel Roberts, my paternal grandfather who, they say, became a legend in his lifetime as the only Western-qualified doctor who did serious research into the Ayurvedic system of medicine, resulting in his book 'The Vegetable Materia Medica of India and Ceylon,' published by the reputed firm of Plate Ltd. which exists to this day.


The book is not simply a 'directory' of Ayurvedic plants and herbs; several such books have been written. Moreover, Dr. Roberts' book is the first of its kind (with prescriptions) to be written in the English language.

While it does give details of the efficacy of the plants and herbs discussed, it contains prescriptions written by Dr. Roberts himself, as a professionally highly qualified Western allopathic doctor, which were made and used during his lifetime and even after, for the relief of patients suffering from a variety of ailments for which Western medicine had no cure. And this is what makes 'The Vegetable Materia Medica of India and Ceylon' unique, as I have been told by those knowledgeable in such matters.

Emmanuel Roberts who was one of the most distinguished products of Royal College, served his internship at Galle Hospital.

It was in Galle that he met and married Jane Morton-Rossiter, the daughter of a proprietary planter of aristocratic Scottish descent. Emmanuel then proceeded to England and Scotland on a post graduate scholarship, obtaining his FRFPS (Glasgow) and MRCP (England).

Returning to Ceylon he threw himself into his medical practice and soon gained enormous recognition and fame not only for his brilliance as a diagnostician but for his kindness and humane qualities. He amassed wealth and went on to own several houses in Kollupitiya, one of which. St. James, made way for the Post Office which stands there today.

A contemporary of doctors such as Marcus Fernando, Andreas Nell, Garvin Mack and Lucien de Zilwa, Emmanuel Roberts spent 40 years of his life researching Ayurveda and had to face some criticism from his Western contemporaries who in those days scoffed at the indigenous system of medicine.

But Dr. Roberts, with a visionary sense knew the day would come when Ayurveda would not only regain popularity with his own people but in distant lands as well. We see the truth of this today.


Emmanuel Roberts - the family name is Ratnajinendra Rabel Ratnaweera - was born to staunch Buddhist parents.

His father dabbled in the practice of the Ayurvedic system which is how the young Emmanuel became interested in it. He remained a fervent Buddhist throughout his life although his wife was born to Protestant Christian parents.

However, he loved Western classical music but it is said he would also chant ancient slokas in his rare sparetime.

It is said that the strains of the music of Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar and Chopin in particular wafted constantly through the house.

Emmanuel Roberts was well known for his dignity of bearing and gentlemanly manner. Dressed always in the morning suit of the times, he saw patients at home and kept his medical rooms strictly out of bounds to his obstreperous sons, Royalists themselves, who would play cricket even inside the house!


At a time when the English-educated elite of the country looked down their noses at 'native' medicine, Emmanuel Roberts had the courage to go into Ayurveda research. It is said that some brown sahib types sneered at him - behind his back, of course; no one would have dared to openly confront him on the matter.

Among the lives Emmanuel saved using Ayurvedic medicine was that of Armand de Souza, a legendary name in local journalism.

The story goes that the Editor was suffering from double pneumonia which in those days was just as good as 'gone.' Emmanuel treated him with one of his prescriptions which for obvious reasons cannot be detailed here.

My grandfather dressed in the style that was de rigueur at the time for a man of such high professional standing - morning coat,striped trousers such as our lawyers wear to this day, stiff collars and gold watch and chain in his waistcoat pocket! He would never wear the same suit of clothes twice running, changing twice a day at least.

Dr. Emmanuel Roberts' father claimed direct descent from the master-craftsmen of yore, notably the celebrated Devendra Mulachari and from royalty.

A fountain in Emmanuel's memory built at the People's Park, Kalubowila, Dehiwela, after his death, was ceremonially opened by the British Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott. Adjacent to the park is Roberts Road, a household word in Dehiwela homes, named after the late doctor.

When Emmanuel died in the mid 1930s of septicaemia following the extraction of more than one tooth in one go, at his house, The Gables, Colpetty, his distraught daughters, still unmarried although two distinguished gentlemen, namely, Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera and S.F. de Silva-both distant kinsmen - had been proposed to them, persuaded their mother to move from the house to a beautiful new abode, named 'Sutton,' in de Fonseka Place, Bambalapitiya.

At the time of his death, Emmanuel was also doing research into cancer-causing foods.

It is said that interviews with several of his patients suffering from the disease revealed addictive preference for that most delicious of fruity-vegetables, the tomato.

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