The saga of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) has been recounted by Dr Uragoda in his book. According to his account, the General Hospital (as it was then known) was established during Sir Henry Wards governorship (1855-1860), with 3000 pounds sterling being earmarked for the project. Until then, the government policy had been to contribute to natively-run charitable health organisations. However, after the establishment of the General Hospital, this policy was abandoned. Furthermore, the General Hospital also succeeded the Pettah Hospital, since its capacity to treat patients was very low. Accordingly, the General Hospital was opened in Longden Place in 1864, under the inaugural administration of Chief Civil Medical Officer Dr Parsley.
In 1900, Longden Place was renamed as Kynsey Place, in commemoration of Sir W.R. Kynseys 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, aTitchbourne 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.
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, for the purpose of initiating a college for nursing, a director as well as a nurse arrived in Ceylon from England. With the enrolment of a decent and well-educated young women, the College was opened in the General Hospital in October, 1878. The college was based on the methods propagated by Florence Nightingale in England.
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, Venereal etc. 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 year 1882 alone, the hospital treated 3714 admitted patients, of whom 1509 were surgical patients. Accordingly, in 1894, the number of wards was increased to 24, while beds were also increased to number at 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 8th, 1886, to the effect that Governor of Ceylon Sir Arthur Gordon was eager and enthusiastic to recruit Catholic nuns as trainee nurses. As per the letter that contained this statement, the State was to sponsor fully the remuneration of such recruited clergywomen, as well as to provide them with transport facilities, accommodation, and other incidental necessities. Most Rev. Christopher Bonjean, O.M.I., the Archbishop of Colombo at the time, considered this request and, upon His Graceas satisfaction, provided the hospital with Rev. Boisseu O.M.I. and six Franciscan nuns who arrived in Colombo on June 15th, 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 (O.M.I.), with the participation of the hospital administration. Rev. Collin was appointed as the first Chaplain of the nurses, and took abode in the housing provided for the nuns, where he even celebrated Holy Mass in a specially designated room. However, with the progress of time, a chapel was constructed adjacent to the nuns housing building, and was consecrated by Rev. Coquil O.M.I. on April 1st, 1887. In 1888, Rev. Conrad was appointed as the Chaplain of the hospital for the first time; while, until then, the Chaplain was only to oversee the spiritual well-being of the nuns serving as nurses, since then, he was also to tend to the spiritual needs of the Catholic patients patronising the hospital.
The idea to found an eye hospital named after the recently deceased Queen Victoria was first proffered 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 project 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 a lakh in rupees through public donations alone. In time, Governor Ridgeway affirmed that, although the hospital would initially be dedicated to eye-related ailments, eventually its scope would be expanded to treat other illnesses as well. With this announcement, the amount of donations for the fund increased even further.
On August 6th, 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, Edward Skinner.
Skinner estimated Rs. 160,000 to be the cost of construction. The hospital spans an area of 200ft by 97ft. The space between two walls was 38ft wide. The height of each ward, beneath the ceiling was 14ft. Initially, the hospital could only house 45 patients. As at 1903, with no electric lighting fitted in the hospital, the wards were illuminated with gas lamps. The hospital did not have any ceiling fans. 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 Ward.
The first administrative building was established in 1904, and it still stands majestically today, known 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 board in Colombo.