Pioneer heart surgeon N.C. Tan dies at 84; he led Singapore's first heart valve operation successfully in 1971

Dr N.C. Tan made history when he led a team to perform Singapore's first heart valve operation successfully in 1971 at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
Dr N.C. Tan made history when he led a team to perform Singapore's first heart valve operation successfully in 1971 at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Pioneer heart surgeon Tan Ngoh Chuan died on Tuesday, 11 days after he was warded at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) for pneumonia. He was 84.

Better known as Dr N.C. Tan, he made history when he led a team to perform Singapore's first heart valve operation successfully in 1971 at TTSH.

His team members included his wife, cardiologist Dixie Tan, a former Member of Parliament who died last year of brain cancer. She was 78.

His eldest child, Grace, 51, a Stanford-trained chemist and now missionary, said her father retired 14 years ago as a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon.

He had Alzheimer's disease for the past 10 years and had been staying in a nursing home since 2009, she added.

She has a younger sister, Jacinta, 50, an eating disorder psychiatrist living and working in England, as well as two intellectually disabled elder brothers - Russel, 55, and Kenneth, who died of cancer two years ago at age 51.

Born in Penang, Dr Tan had wanted to be a surgeon since he was nine after he saw his father, a nurse, stitching a patient's wounds in hospital, said his daughter Grace.

He studied medicine at the then University of Malaya in Singapore, graduating in 1955.

Four years later, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons, becoming the first Malayan doctor to obtain the fellowship.

Between 1959 and 1960, he was trained in open-heart surgery, both in Sydney and Melbourne hospitals, before returning to Singapore to work in 1961.

He pioneered heart surgery at TTSH and became head of its cardiothoracic surgery unit in 1966. He moved to Singapore General Hospital in 1981 to head a similar unit before going into private practice in 1988.

He also taught cardiothoracic surgery to medical students at the National University of Singapore for many years.

One of them, general practitioner Lum Chun Fatt, 61, recalled: "We looked forward to his lectures because of his pioneering status in the field, and he was popular because he was ever willing to share his knowledge with us."

Younger daughter Jacinta, who is married with an eight-year-old son, said she would always remember her father as a "single-minded and determined person who was dedicated to his work".

The funeral is today.

Dr Tan's cortege leaves Cherish Hall at Mount Vernon Sanctuary at 2.30pm for cremation at Mandai Crematorium's Hall 4 at 3.30pm.

wengkam@sph.com.sg