APPRECIATION – PROFESSOR MAHROOF ISMAIL

By   Prof. Nilanthi de Silva

On 13 June 2016, Sri Lanka lost another doyen in the field of Medical Parasitology. Prof Ismail was one of the earliest members of the Sri Lanka College of Microbiologists, serving as its 11th President, in 1987. In 2015, when the College decided to honour those who have served the College and our profession by awarding honorary Fellowships, the Council was unanimous in deciding that Prof Ismail should be among the first recipients of a Fellowship. 

Mohamed Mahroof Ismail obtained his MBBS from the University of Ceylon and his PhD in Medical Parasitology from McGill University, Canada. He also spent a post-doctoral year at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the UK. After his return to Sri Lanka, he worked at the MRI for several years and became its Director in 1983. In the same year, he joined the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo as the Professor of Parasitology and later served as Dean of the Faculty from 1994 to 1996. Throughout his working life, Prof Ismail engaged in research, mostly on lymphatic filariasis and soil-transmitted helminths. His work was of such quality that it had significant impact on national as well as international health policies in relation to control of both groups of infections. The most significant body of work that he and his collaborators produced was to demonstrate for the first time that albendazole combined with diethylcarbamazine citrate or ivermectin has a pronounced and sustained effect of reducing microfilaraemia for over two years. This combination is currently being successfully used by the WHO and the Ministries of Health in 83 endemic countries as part of the global strategy to eliminate filariasis.

Prof Ismail also held many eminent posts, serving as a member of the University Grants Commission, as the Chairman of the Board of Management of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine; and as external examiner in Parasitology of the University of Malaya as well as the National University of Malaysia. He served the WHO at its Headquarters in Geneva, and in the South East Asian Regional Office in New Delhi in many different capacities:  as Chairman of the WHO Expert Committee on Soil-Transmitted Helminthiases; as a member of the WHO Expert Committee on Lymphatic Filariasis and the WHO Technical Advisory Group for Lymphatic Filariasis; as a WHO Consultant to Egypt and Bangladesh to revise their National Filariasis Control Programmes; and Chairman of the South East Asian Programme Review Group for the elimination of lymphatic filariasis from 2002 until 2006.

I am just one of many who owe an immense debt of gratitude to Prof Ismail. I learnt much of my parasitology from him, as a medical student, as a postgraduate student, and even after that. He was one of the examiners at my MD examination in 1994. I still recall very clearly, the occasion when I went to thank him after passing the exam. I was a young probationary lecturer back then, who had just started working at Ragama, in a medical faculty that was virtually in its infancy. My husband Janaka and I met Prof Ismail in the Dean’s Office in the Colombo Medical Faculty. We talked of this and that, and then I asked him if he had any suggestions for research. He immediately shared with us an idea that had occurred to him while attending a WHO meeting a few weeks previously. He said that this study could only be done in Sri Lanka because of the confluence of circumstances at that moment in time, but that it had the potential to transform international policy with regard to deworming programmes. Together with other colleagues from Ragama, we turned this idea into a study that was eventually published in one of the foremost medical journals. This little episode is only one example of the unassuming generosity and supportiveness that Prof Ismail extended to all who came into contact with him. He probably never thought twice about what he did, but for me, it was a landmark in my academic career.

Over the decades since then, we came into contact at regular intervals, especially at Parasitology oral examinations for medical students. Those times when I was his co-examiner were days that I really enjoyed, because Prof Ismail somehow turned them into learning experiences for both students and me, and his unfailing sense of humour lessened the tedium of coping with medical students who seemed to view Parasitology oral exams as an instrument of torture.

As he gradually withdrew from the professional arena, Janaka and I tried to stay in touch by visiting him at home. He was an unfailingly courteous and considerate host, and we learnt that he was an excellent cook, who also enjoyed good food. We also saw a marriage that seemed to have been made in heaven. Prof Ismail and his wife Jezima, an equally eminent figure in her own right, in the field of education, lived their life together, not only in bringing up a family, but in many other ways that sought to support the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

I have had the privilege of following in Prof Ismail’s footsteps, in that my research has been largely in the same fields. At international meetings, mention of my Sri Lankan nationality often results in enquiry after Prof Ismail. World-renowned experts speak of him with much respect and affection. One of them characterized him as a ‘gentleman and a scholar’ – a phrase which struck me as a particularly appropriate description of Prof Ismail. May he rest in peace!