Source: SG50 Healthcare Commemorative Book
In 1941, the first casualties of Japanese air raids were treated at the General Hospital, which functioned as the main civilian hospital.
The Second World War, from 1942 to 1945, brought the promising momentum of healthcare advancement to a screeching halt. The war wreaked havoc on the population and on medical services, severely straining manpower and medical supplies. As a result, the civilian population suffered from severe malnutrition and conditions associated with it, like beriberi, were widespread. Malaria was rampant too.
The Occupation destroyed much of the progress made in the preceding 40 years. The Japanese forces commandeered the hospitals for their use, taking over the General Hospital on 18 February 1942 and turning it into the Occupation’s main surgical hospital for its troops in Southeast Asia.
The medical school at the College of Medicine Building was closed on 16 February 1942 and the building occupied by the Japanese Army Medical Corps. A medical school was set up in Malacca.
Upper Block (Bowyer Block Museum today), camouflaged during the war years. The 47 British General Hospital (Now the Singapore General Hospital) with the distinctive red cross on the roof, 1945
Source: NAS/Claire M. S. Baker
Many died, from bombs and bullets as well as other consequences of war. A cut in water supply to the General Hospital was disastrous. The hospital buried hundreds of the resulting dead in a mass grave on its grounds. The bronze plaque commemorating them is still seen in the lobby of the College of Medicine Building today.
However, the disruption from the war brought about a paradigm shift in
the local medical community. With the expatriate doctors interned by the
Japanese during the war, local doctors and staff assumed full responsibility in
running the hospitals that continued to serve the locals. They proved
themselves capable and became aware of the imperative need to unify the medical
service with equal treatment of local and colonial doctors posted from Britain
Once the Japanese left, the British Military Administration faced the enormous yet urgent task of healing the tears in the fabric of Singapore’s public health services. Primary healthcare – outpatient, maternal and child health and the school health service – was given top priority. But
The Occupation had left the medical establishment severely handicapped in terms of manpower and supplies. The civil population was badly under-nourished. In July 1946, the maternity wing of the Hospital closed and thereafter, all obstetrics and gynaecology patients were seen at Kandang Kerbau Hospital.
The Hospital’s Upper, Middle and Lower Blocks were renamed after three doctors who perished during the war – Dr John Herbert Bowyer, Dr Cuthbert Stanley and Dr Victor Norris respectively. Today, only part of Bowyer Block still stands from the 1926 hospital, with Norris and Stanley Blocks demolished in the 1970s. The two-storey block, built in the neo-classical style, features a distinctive clock tower and was gazetted as a national monument on 11 November 2009.
In 1951, the Legislative Council began implementing a 10-year Medical Plan to improve Singapore’s health and medical services. Existing hospitals were expanded and modernized, while many new outpatient clinics were built. Laws were also introduced to regulate the training and registration of nursing and medical professions.
When the war ended, the colonial government agreed to unify the local and local and colonial medical service. But only a few were sent to Britain on scholarships. Before 1960, there were fewer than 50 doctors who had higher specialist qualifications to serve the population of two million. These were heady times for medical luminaries such as Dr Benjamin Sheares, Professor Ernest Monteiro, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng and Professor Gordon Arthur Ransom, who founded the Academy of Medicine and pushed for the development of local specialists. By the mid-1960s, local specialists had begun to make their impact felt, leading the way in pioneering procedures for treating complex medical problems in Singapore.
Today, SGH has two sites that commemorate wartime deaths. One is a plaque bearing the names of 11 medical and dental students whose lives were lost during the war, while the other is a cross which marks a mass grave at the carpark near Bowyer Block.
Singapore Hospital ground to be memorial garden, Malaya Tribune, 5 April 1947, Page 5
During the last hours of the Battle of Singapore, wounded civilians and servicemen taken prisoner by the Japanese were brought to the hospital in their hundreds. The number of fatalities was such that burial in the normal manner was impossible. Before the war, an emergency water tank had been dug in the grounds of the hospital and this was used as a grave for more than 500 civilians and Commonwealth servicemen. After the war, it was decided that as individual identification of the dead would be impossible, the grave should be left undisturbed. The grave was suitably enclosed, consecrated by the Bishop of Singapore, and a cross in memory of all of those buried there was erected over it by the military authorities around 1947. This red cross with a granite base is found near Bowyer Block in the grounds of Singapore General Hospital (Car Park C).
The Japanese occupation forces took over the General Hospital for use by their troops in Southeast Asia.
However, the disruption from the war brought about a paradigm shift in the local medical community. With the expatriate doctors interned by the Japanese during the war, local doctors and staff assumed full responsibility in running the hospitals that continued to serve the locals. They proved themselves capable and became aware of the imperative need to unify the medical service with equal treatment of local and colonial doctors posted from Britain and India.
Just five years after gaining independence, Singapore was actively exploring avenues of economic development to ensure its sustainability. Initiatives were underway to make Singapore a liveable city, and healthcare systems and services had to keep pace with modern advances across the globe.
As the country was gripped by events like Konfrontasi, the Maria Hertogh riots, the Pulau Senang prison riot and the Hock Lee Bus protests, SGH continued to treat their respective victims.
SGH has undergone numerous transformations since its establishment nearly 200 years ago to keep up with the needs of Singaporeans. The iconic Bowyer Block, a National Monument in recognition of its national significance and rich history, is a standing reminder of how far we have come in advancing patient care.