From treating sex workers to maternity hospital: History of KKH

KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) has more than 100 years of history, starting out as a general hospital in 1858 before becoming a maternity hospital in 1924.
KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) has more than 100 years of history, starting out as a general hospital in 1858 before becoming a maternity hospital in 1924.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) set a Guinness world record on Sunday morning (Oct 17) for the largest reunion of people born in the same hospital.

A total of 2,241 people - all born at KKH - gathered at Bishan Stadium that morning.

KKH has more than 100 years of history. It was built as a general hospital in 1858 and became a maternity hospital in 1924.

It has had many names - such as General Hospital, Lock Hospital or Central Hospital. But the geographical nickname of Kandang Kerbau has been its most popular name through the years.

The hospital gained its present name in 1997, when it moved from its original site across the road to its current premises at 100, Bukit Timah Road.

The old hospital site, which now houses the Land Transport Authority headquarters, was designated a historic site in 2003.

The Straits Times looks at some other historical fun facts about the hospital.

SHED-DING LIGHT ON HISTORY

"KK" originated as an acronym for Kandang Kerbau, which means "buffalo shed" in Malay. The Kampong Java area gained this name in the 19th century because the British colonial authorities had a buffalo pen there.

"The site was low, badly drained, and was not improved" by having cattle sheds on one side and a "lunatic asylum" on the other, The Straits Times commented in 1933.

KKH was a general hospital in the mid-19th century, and facilities were racially segregated.

"The buildings consisted of one large, very stoutly built and airy ward of about 40 beds for European seamen," ST reported then, as well as "a second block, not quite so airy, sub-divided into four wards with accommodation for about 50 natives".

Patients were evacuated after a cholera epidemic in 1873 and KKH became a women's hospital.

LOCK HOSPITAL AND WOMEN PAUPERS

Laws were passed in 1870 to curtail the human trafficking of sex slaves in colonial Singapore.

In 1872, KKH became the main medical facility for sex workers and prostitutes. It was a "lock hospital", which meant that patients were confined there, sometimes against their will, by law.

It originally had room for 20 patients but this was quickly increased tenfold to 200 beds.

The Straits Times reported in 1874: "Let the Contagious Diseases Ordinances be executed to the letter, even should the Lock Hospital have to be still further enlarged...but let those who make pecuniary profit out of the vice which renders such institutions necessary, be made to support it."

From 1888 onwards, after the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Ordinances, women could be voluntarily treated for sexually transmitted diseases at KKH.

As sexually transmitted diseases waned in Singapore, KKH was converted into a "pauper hospital for women" - that is, for women patients too poor to pay for medical treatment. The hospital saw about 50 patients a day.

MATERNITY HOSPITAL

KKH converted to a maternity hospital and opened in this capacity on Oct 1, 1924, when it delivered five babies.

At the time, the hospital - which saw 688 births in its first year - had 30 beds. It was also used as a training institution for students of midwifery and medicine.

At the outbreak of World War II, with the bombing of the island by Japanese forces and then troops engaging in ground warfare, KKH served as an emergency general hospital. Under the Japanese military occupation, the hospital was called "Chuo Byoin" or "Central Hospital".

It returned to being a maternity hospital in 1946.

A baby boom in the post-war years kept KKH staff busy, with 39,835 births in 1966 earning the hospital a Guinness record for the largest number of births in a single hospital.

The late Dr Benjamin Sheares - who would later be Singapore's second president from 1971 to 1981 - had headed the obstetrics and gynaecology department at KKH during World War II, and was also medical superintendent of the local patients' section.

At KKH, Dr Sheares put Singapore's medical research on the world map in the 1960s when he pioneered an operation to create vaginas for babies born without them.

Singapore's first test tube baby was also born at KKH, in 1983.