Medical cluster's storied past

Bowyer Block (above) was built in 1926 together with the Stanley and Norris blocks for the then General Hospital, and is the only one still standing. It was named after former chief medical officer John Herbert Bowyer.
Bowyer Block (above) was built in 1926 together with the Stanley and Norris blocks for the then General Hospital, and is the only one still standing. It was named after former chief medical officer John Herbert Bowyer.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Left: The College of Medicine Building was built in 1926 for the King Edward VII College of Medicine. It now houses the Ministry of Health headquarters. Above: Bas-reliefs on the College of Medicine Building's facade depict the teaching and practisin
The College of Medicine Building was built in 1926 for the King Edward VII College of Medicine. It now houses the Ministry of Health headquarters. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
The Tan Teck Guan Building has a symmetrical Neo-Georgian facade, its exterior with contrasting colours being typical of this style. It was built around 1910 and named after the third son of merchant and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.
The Tan Teck Guan Building has a symmetrical Neo-Georgian facade, its exterior with contrasting colours being typical of this style. It was built around 1910 and named after the third son of merchant and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Bowyer Block (above) was built in 1926 together with the Stanley and Norris blocks for the then General Hospital, and is the only one still standing. It was named after former chief medical officer John Herbert Bowyer.
Above: Bas-reliefs on the College of Medicine Building's facade depict the teaching and practising of medicine in Ancient Greece.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

From places of worship to educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 18th in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

Did you know that Bowyer Block, one of three historic buildings with colonial features at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), was named after a doctor who died during the Japanese Occupation?

It was one of the first places here where the sick were treated at the then General Hospital.

Just down the road, the College of Medicine Building and Tan Teck Guan Building were where doctors learnt their craft in the early days.

Bowyer Block, constructed in 1926, was named after Dr John Herbert Bowyer who was the hospital's former chief medical officer.

According to heritage portal Roots.sg, he was arrested in January 1944 and tortured by the Japanese military police. The Dublin-born doctor died at the Sime Road internment camp in November that year.

The General Hospital, which began as a mere wooden shed in 1821, was rebuilt in various locations before ending up at the hilly Sepoy Lines at Outram Road, where Indian soldiers, or sepoys, had their barracks.

As the main administrative wing of the hospital, Bowyer Block - with an iconic clock tower - held staff quarters and some wards.

The building, along what is now Third Hospital Avenue, also housed the School of Nursing and Department of Renal Medicine.

Nurses who worked there remember the days when folding beds were the norm during busy periods, and meals - which came in huge trolleys - were dished out to patients on stainless steel trays.

"As junior nurses on night shift, we had the terrifying task of sending bodies to the mortuary in the wee hours of the morning with a health attendant," said Ms Rosie Kwan, 69.

The senior nurse manager at SGH started in the medical ward in 1968 as a final-year student nurse.

As the hospital modernised, the old buildings were mostly replaced in phases during the 1970s.

The central structure of Bowyer Block is now the only remnant of the old building. Part of the block was demolished to make way for the present SGH, which opened in 1981.

In 2005, Bowyer Block became home to the SGH Museum, where visitors can learn about the country's medical heritage and examine artefacts such as early dental chairs and dialysis machines. Despite the makeover, the block retains vestiges of the past.

Holes in the walls and balcony walls were once instrumental in improving ventilation, said SGH Museum curator Toby Huynh, 45.

The block's "pavilion" design, with wide verandahs lining the perimeter of wards, did the same, said Ms Huynh, an Australian citizen who has curated the museum for the past 10 years.

"So many people who've invented stuff or had a condition or syndrome named after them have come through these doors," she said.

MEDICAL CLASSES

Across the street in College Road is the College of Medicine Building, a majestic building with 12 tall Doric columns and bas-reliefs depicting the teaching and practising of medicine in Ancient Greece.

A seat of medical learning for 60 years until 1986, it is now home to the Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore Medical Council and College of Family Physicians, according to Roots.sg.

It was built in 1926 as a new building for the King Edward VII College of Medicine, formerly known as the Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School. It was used by the Japanese as a base for war casualties, and later became the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Singapore in 1962.

The building was designed by Major Percy Hubert Keys, who was also behind the Fullerton Building and Bowyer Block.

Beside it is the Neo-Georgian, red-bricked Tan Teck Guan Building, which also houses the Health Ministry. Built around 1910, it was funded by rubber tycoon Tan Chay Yan and named after his father - the third son of merchant and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.

Most notably, it once housed the Department of Anatomy where students dissected human cadavers.

"There was always a strong smell of formalin, which was used to preserve bodies," recalled Associate Professor Chew Suok Kai, MOH's deputy director of medical services (health regulation group).

Prof Chew studied there from 1973 to 1978, served as a university senior tutor and has worked at the MOH headquarters since 1996. He said: "I feel a sense of familiarity here even though so much has changed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'Medical cluster's storied past'. Print Edition | Subscribe