National Hospital of Sri Lanka:
A 150-year journey of healing
The saga of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) has been
recounted by Dr. C. G. Uragoda in his book; `History of Teaching
Hospitals in Sri Lanka.' According to his account, the General Hospital
(as it was then known) was established during Sir Henry Ward's
Governorship (1855-1860), with 3000 pounds sterling being earmarked for
In 1900, Longden Place was renamed as Kynsey Place, in commemoration
of Sir W.R. Kynsey's services. During this era, Mutwal was the
residential area of Colombo. Thus, the hospital was chosen to be located
in Cinnamon Gardens, as its suburban setting was deemed more appropriate
for its functions. Dr. Andreas Nell, who was incidentally born the same
year as the hospital was founded, provides this account of the environs
of the hospital's geographical setting:
"The General Hospital was not built in a very populous area. Coming
from the north, there was a shady, narrow avenue behind the mansions. `Titchbourne
Hall' and `The Gutharium'. From the east, there was a similar avenue
running from the Welikada Prison. Among the houses built there were also
two undertakers' business establishments. From the western direction,
coming from Turret Road, there stood a small villa called `The Mango
Lodge', where the Eye Hospital stands now. This had been used as a rest
house by the Dutch administrators during their many hunting expeditions.
"There were only five houses in the whole of Regent Street, which
extended from 'The Mango Lodge'. On the right hand side of the hospital,
a long road ran all the way to the Colombo cemetery. During the time the
streets of Colombo were being named, this road was named Kynsey Road
after the head of the Medical Department, Sir William Kynsey."
In 1885, the Hospital could claim 22 wards that included 212 beds.
These wards, connected to each other by narrow corridors, were divided
as Naval, Paying, European, Surgical, Emergency, Indigenous, Surgical
Nurses were proportionately distributed among each ward
The only General Physician of the hospital was Dr. G.W. Fowler, while
the only Surgeon and Pathologist was Dr. H.G. Thomas.
They were assisted by Resident Physician Dr. Eliyatamby. Of the 212
hospital beds, 112 were dedicated to the Medical Unit, whereas the rest
was provisioned for the Surgical Unit.
However, in 1882 alone, the hospital treated 3,714 admitted patients
of whom 1509 were surgical patients. According, in 1894, the number of
wards was increased to 24, while beds were also increased to 280.
By 1879, the nursing service had been institutionalised well into the
hospital's working structure, particularly with the drafting of the
constitutional documents pertaining to their roles and duties within the
hospital. All nurses were brought under the purview of the Chief Nurse's
supervision. These nurses were not initially afforded any technical
training; the only relevant qualifications were literacy and the
possession of a certificate of good character. Nurses were
proportionately distributed among each ward, or clusters of wards, based
on their scale and number of interned patients. They were required to
work night shifts. The day-time shift, consisting in 14 hours, was from
6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The government faced many difficulties in recruiting nursing staff
for the hospital. In the end, the Governor was compelled to request
clergywomen to man the nursing staff through the Catholic Church, after
Dr. W.R. Kynsey who headed the department, made an official statement on
February 8, 1886, to the effect that Governor of Ceylon Sir Arthur
Gordon was eager and enthusiastic to recruit Catholic nuns as trainee
Most Rev. Christopher Bonjean, OMI, the Archbishop of Colombo at the
time, considered this request and, upon His Grace's satisfaction,
provided the hospital with Rev. Boisseu OMI and six Franciscan nuns who
arrived in Colombo on June 15, 1886 from Marseilles, France. They were
accommodated within the hospital's premises in a small house, after
having it consecrated by Revs. Boisseu and Collin (OMI), with the
participation of the hospital administration.
An eye hospital named after the recently deceased Queen Victoria was
first conceived by the wife of the then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Joseph
West Ridgeway. Accordingly, a fund was established in aid of those
suffering from visual impairments. Lady Ridgeway also made public
announcements regarding the project through the media. The newspaper
companies supported the projects enthusiastically. Ceylonese magnate
Muhandiram N.S. Fernando donated an amount of Rs. 5,000 in aid of this
fund. In record time, the fund succeeded in amassing one lakh in rupees
through public donations alone.
A view of the hospital
On August 6, 1903, the laying of the foundation stone for the new
hospital was carried out under the auspices of Lady Ridgeway. This
hospital remains to date, and is still visible in all its splendour at
one corner of the Colombo Town Hall/Eye Hospital junction. Influenced by
Hindu architectural traditions, the buildings were designed by renowned
architect and member of the Royal Institute of British Architects,
The facade of the hospital spans an area of 200ft by 197ft.
Initially, the hospital could only house 45 patients.
The wards were illuminated with gas lamps. In 1906, a room in the
Planters' Ward was specially set up with four beds for the internment of
members of the postal service. It became known as the Skinner Memorial
The first administrative building was established in 1904, and it
still stands majestically today, knows as the White House'. The safes
installed in this building were employed by the Colombo Hospital board
to store the moneys relevant to the administration of all the hospitals
under the bard in Colombo.
Several laboratory divisions were set up within the National Hospital
of Sri Lanka, based on the needs of the specialists.
The laboratory established in 1921 to identify venereal diseases and
the laboratory established in 1962 as the Blood Bank was later
institutionalised as the National STD/AIDAS Control Programme and the
National Blood Transfusion Institute. In 1978, all of the various
laboratory divisions were amalgamated into one Department of Pathology.
In 1910, the first ever out-patient department was established.
Today, that building is occupied by the Main X-Ray Unit.In October of
1918, Sir William Henry Inaugurated the Merchant Ward, which is known
today as Ward No. 15.
Former Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike being subjected to a
check-up at the Surgical complex
The history of the Rheumatology and Physiotherapy Unit traces back to
the 1920- 1930 era. During that period, electrotherapy and massaging
lamps and muscle simulators were administered by nurses.
As at 1920, the public dental health service provided only the most
basic dental services. None of the significant dental surgeries were
provided during that time. However, as per a strategy drawn up in 1924,
a private residence down Ward Place was converted in 1925 into a dental
The Hospital Radiology Unit was established within the administrative
building in 1926. While the use of radium in treating cancer patients in
the General Hospital was first begun in 1929, such use was continued
until the establishment of the cancer-specific institution in Maharagama.
A majority of specialist doctors in the year 1930 were General
Surgeons. Although they served in a large number of hospitals, the
Health Director was a British national. During the period of the World
War II, the OPD unit of the General Hospital was requisitioned as a war
hospital; war patients were interned in the school premises of several
schools including St. Joseph's College, St. Peter's College, Holy Family
Convent and Nalanda College. The year 1939 saw the break out of World
War !!. On May 9 of that year the Colombo College of Nursing was
launched under the able guidance of Ms. Baird.
With the creation of the University of Ceylon in 1942, the Colombo
General Hospital was selected as its teaching hospital.
Dr. J.B. Peiris assumed duties as neurology consultant in 1972,
founded the Neurological Intensive Care Unit. Subsequently, on April 8th
of 1984, a formal Neurological Unit was installed.
The first orthopaedic workshop had been established in the General
Hospital in the year 1947, subsequent to the enactment of a special
statute in the National Legislative Assembly.
In 1958, an administrative complex named the Bandaranaike Block was
erected, consisting of five storeys that included operation theatres,
wards, as well as a sterilisation unit. This complex remains as the
administrative block, even today.
The hospital kitchens were also started in 1952 with the initiative
of American-born Ms. Jailor, assisted by seven Catholic sisters.
first cardiothoracic unit was established in 1952. The year 1955 saw the
beginning of the hospital's many open-heart surgeries. Further, a
six-bed, air-conditioned intensive care unit was also declared opened
immediately adjacent to the cardio unit, on June 16th of 1968, by the
then Minister of Health E.L. Senanayake.
An ECG Unit was opened in the out-patient department on November 1,
1955, where approximately six patients were provided with the facility
each day, with nearly half an hour being spent on each patient's
assessment.1955 also saw the recruitment of the first Genito-urinary
specialist of the General Hospital, Dr. George Nelson Perera,
In 1957, the College of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy was
inaugurated as an affiliated institution of the Colombo General
The School of Radiology that was founded in 1957 and situated in the
X-Ray Reporting Room has, since then, been relocated to a new building
adjoining the X-Ray Unit.
Pharmaceutical services were launched in 1958 in all the hospitals
island-wide, including in the General Hospital. Initially the in-house
pharmacy of the General Hospital was operated by two pharmacists. While
this setup was not adequate to cope with the scale and number of
patients of the hospital in that era, by 1970, the unit came to be
manned by 15 pharmacists who worked round the clock. It was the first of
its kind to provide such a service. On the 2nd of February, 1958, the
then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike declared open the Surgical
Ward and the Surgical Complex. After the opening of this block, known as
the Bandaranaike Building, the first patients to be treated were
neurosurgical patients. In 1960, a Electro Encephalography unit was
begun in the Neurosurgical Unit. In 1988 the first training school for
Electro Encephalography was established in the neurosurgical unit by
four trained personnel.
Ward No. 59 is the Mental Health Ward affiliated to the University of
Colombo. Its inception was in the latter half of the 1960s. At that time
the Dean of the Medical Faculty of the University was Prof. Stanley
Dissanayake. In 1969, he was succeeded by Dr. C. P. Wijesinghe.
The Colombo Medical School, inaugurated in
the former half of 1870, was a monumental asset of the
Hospital that brought the wealth of health to the Sri Lankan
nation. It was founded by Sir Hercule Robinson, while Dr.
E.L. Koch was appointed as its first principal.
The General Hospital in Colombo was the
first hospital to employ women in the nursing staff. In
1878, a nurse arrived from England. With the enrolment of
six young women the service was started, following Florence
Nightingale tradition, in the General Hospital in October
The Victoria Memorial Building that originally housed the Eye
Hospital was vacated when the present-day Eye Hospital complex was
declared open adjacent to it in 1955. Two years later, on New Year's Day
of 1967, a newly constituted Accident Ward was inaugurated in the
Victoria Memorial Building.
Sri Lanka's first Intensive Care Unit was opened in the Surgical
Complex on June 15th, 1968. The Emergency Trolly/Crash Cart concept was
also incorporated to Sri Lanka's medical history.
The founding of the Cardiology Unit was spearheaded by Dr. I. O.
Obeysekara. At its inception in 1969, this new unit laid claim to two
wards and two ICUs. Today, it claims two ICUs and three wards (Wards 60,
61 and 70). This year (2014), preparations are underway to incorporate
another ward (Ward No 71) to the unit. While six units are in operation,
13 doctors manage their operations. A Coronary Care Unit was opened in
In 1989, a new service was launched in relation to the respiratory
system; for the first time in history, a Sri Lankan hospital was able to
administer fibre optic bronchoscopies on patients.
The Burn Unit opened on October 28, 1974 in the Lady de Soysa Ward
was the brainchild of specialist surgeon Dr. Joe Fernando.
In the 1960s a far corner of Ward No 56 was demarcated for
dermatological patients. In 1978, the Dermatological Ward was relocated
to a different building. While, today this location is known was Ward No
13, it was then known as the Naval Ward. The ward comprised a wood-panelled
upper floor, a rope-operated elevator and an old-fashioned staircase.
Thus, the building bore the allure of historical architecture. The first
phase of the project was to completely refurbish the Accident,
Emergency, Orthopaedic, and Trauma Units with state-of-the-art
The Renal Transplant Unit of the General Hospital was opened on May
6, 1987. The first CT-scanning machine was installed in the year 1989.
Bomb blast victims
January 31st of 1996 is etched permanently in the collective
consciousness and memory of the staff of National Hospital of Sri Lanka
as the day hospital of Sri Lanka as the day hospital was called upon to
admit and treat approximately 1200 patients as a result of the bomb
blast that devastated the Central Bank. 76 lives were lost that day.
The National Poisons Information Centre was established January 1st
1988, under the supervision of Prof. Ravindra Fernando. The Centre was
also the first of its kind in all of South Asia. It provides 24
information service through telephone hotline (0112686143) as well as
email ([email protected]). The year 2000 also saw the opening of
the innovative Speech Pathology Unit. Also in the same year, the first
ever MRI machine began its operations in the hospital.
The first Vascular Surgical Unit of the hospital was launched by
Prof. Sherifdeen.Rabies Treatment Unit began operations on April 4,
2005, in Room No 2 of the Out-Patient Department.The foundation stone to
the Neurotrauma unit was laid by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on
September 26, 2005.On June 21st, 2013 the Pain Management Unit was
opened under the directives of consultant Anaesthetist Dr. Rohini
Ranwala. On May 2nd, 2014, the Cornea Collecting Centre was launched
under the auspices of the National Eye Bank of Sri Lanka (NEBSL). A
health assistant from the National Eye Bank of Sri Lanka coordinates the
services, working round the clock daily. The collected corneas stored in
a deep freezer and are transported to the NEBSL.
(The above is an excerpt of the chapter titled 'A short History of
NHSL' in A Legacy of 150 years, researched and written by S.S.
Jayasinghe, Mrs. P.D.C.S.N. Withanage, Miss. R.A.D.C. Karunarathne, V.P.
Wimalasena, R.P.H. Perera, Chanaka Darmawikrama, E. Dharmakeerthi,
Chathura Dharshana and Mrs. P. Dayani)