Anatomy of S'pore's public healthcare

As Singapore General Hospital celebrates its bicentennial year, museum artefacts from the oldest hospital here offer insights into the growth of public healthcare in Singapore.

The collection includes obstetric delivery forceps used by doctors, self-retaining retractors, bone-nibbler clamps, mallots, curettes, bone hooks, osteotome, rongeurs, and a little axe saw used to cut parts of the skull. Some of these surgical instruments were used in ground-breaking procedures by doctors at Singapore General Hospital to preserve organs or limbs and save lives. Today, they have been replaced by new and more effective instruments. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Used by Singapore General Hospital’s physiotherapy department, these goggles protected patients’ eyes when they underwent microwave therapy around the shoulder joint area. Now gel heat packs are used as such therapy for joint problems was discontinued about 20 years ago. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
In the early days before disposables were used, drums of various sizes were used to hold plain gauze and linen dressing towels as well as reusable glass syringes and needles that were separately wrapped for sterilisation. Such drums would have been collected and sent to the large centralised sterilisation vaults that used to be at Bowyer Block. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
In the orthopaedic wards, nurses frequently had to elevate the foot of hospital beds as preparation to set up traction for patients with, for instance, lower limb fracture. This helped to keep the bones aligned and aid healing. Beds in those days were extremely heavy and could not be wound up like those today. Two nurses had to lift the foot of the bed while another slipped the wooden blocks under the legs of the bed. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
In the 1960s, nurses used to shave patients with a razor a day before their operations. The practice of removing hair from surgical sites, including the genital areas, became entrenched decades ago because it was thought that hair harboured bacteria that could infect the surgical wound. Unnecessary shaving was gradually phased out to prevent nicking the skin and increasing the risk of wound infection. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
In the operating theatre of the early 1980s, surgeons wore this reusable face shield to protect against anticipated splashes of body fluids during mechanical debridement procedures for the treatment of post-blast injury to remove retained debris on the skin tissues. With the advent of disposable masks and evolution of design, masks with visors are now part of the personal protective equipment used in all operating theatres. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Nelson’s inhaler is a double-valve porcelain steam inhaler invented in the 1860s for the inhalation of medications through steam. The full set-up previously used in SGH included a thick linen cover placed in an enamel bowl, gauze, tape, a measuring jug with 500ml of hot water, an enamel cup and a kidney dish. Tincture benzoin compound was typically the prescribed medication. The intent was to decrease upper respiratory tract inflammation and congestion, and to loosen or liquefy secretions. This would allow for easier breathing. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The Pinard horn was invented by French obstetrician Adolphe Pinard during the 19th century. It is one of the oldest known tools used to listen to the foetal heart rate and can be made of hollowed wood or cast in aluminium. Midwives carried it in their bags during house visits and while seeing patients at maternal and child health clinics in the 1950s to 1970s. These days, cardiotocography is used to monitor the foetal heart rate for signs of foetal distress. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
In the 1960s and 1970s, seamstresses from the SGH linen room used to sew these terry-towel baby nappies that were worn by neonates in the paediatrics department. During periods of long stretches of wet weather or insufficient laundry supply, or when the wards were fully occupied, junior nurses and female health attendants had to hand-wash the nappies and hang them up to dry in airy spots within the ward. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
A device that is used to express breast milk in the early 1960s to the 1970s, manual breast pumps were given to moms with inverted nipples. The expressed milk was then transferred to a glass feeding bottle and warmed before feeding the baby. These glassware were scalded in hot water before each use. In 1986, new departments of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Neonatology were established at SGH. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The haemocytometer and laboratory counters are instruments used for blood cell counting in the 1950s at SGH. Doctors would perform a physical examination before doing a haemoglobin count using the counter to determine if the patient was anaemic. Anaemia was one of the prevalent health problems at the time. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Suture needles are available in various sizes. In the past, such needles were covered in a special coating that had to be removed manually, followed by soaking in a sterilising solution before use. The scrub nurses had to measure and cut the linen or silk suture thread, pack and sterilise it. The suture needles were threaded on the spot by scrub nurses during surgery. Today, the suture needles and thread are pre-packed and ready to use. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The skin graft knife is used to obtain or harvest skin from the patient's own donor site for the coverage of burn surface area of the patient's body. It is a basic instrument for plastic reconstructive surgeons to harvest skin graft of desired thickness manually in the past. It is also used for debridement of burnt skin. Handling the knife demands precise coordination and attention from the surgical team. From the early 1980s, this basic tool has evolved and more advanced automated models are now available. The first Burns Unit in Singapore was established in 1959 at SGH. In the 1978 Spyros explosion accident, SGH played an important role in treating victims, and the SGH Burns Centre was built. Till today, it remains the only specialised facility managing major burn injuries in Southeast Asia. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
This tri-pointed tray was positioned under the eye to collect liquid run-offs during the procedure of irrigating the eye. Ophthalmology was the first specialty department set up in SGH in 1934 and it served as the only government eye clinic up till the late 1970s. The Singapore Eye Bank established in 1966, too, has its roots in SGH. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
This lens had been used to concentrate a bright spot of light over the surface of the eye to check for unevenness, foreign bodies, opacities, corneal inflammation and abnormalities of the anterior chamber of the iris or lens. Today, the direct ophthalmoscope offers a faster and more accurate outcome. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Dated November 10, 1922, this original General Hospital's invoice is for an operation fee of $50 for a Mr William Vincent de Souza. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The alcohol spirit lamp was used to provide heat in some experiments, e.g. in routine urine tests at inpatient wards to determine sugar, albumin or acetone levels even up to the 1960s until it was replaced by the use of test strips. In the laboratory, pathologists would smear specimen on microscope glass slide, heat it over the flame and stain it before they could see the cells of e.g. acid-fast bacillus, a type of bacteria that causes tuberculosis, under a microscope. It helped in the diagnosis of tuberculosis, which was a major community health menace in Singapore, in the 1940s and 1950s. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
This is a bulb-shaped instrument that has a cylindrical stem, which contains a scale calibrated in specific gravity reading. Floated in a glass cylinder containing urine, the depth to which it sinks in the urine indicates if there are abnormalities and the need for further tests. Singapore’s first department of urology was established at SGH in 1988. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Tonsils and adenoids are composed of tissues, located on either side of the back of the throat, and the adenoids are located high in the throat behind the nose and soft palate. Specially-designed instruments like the Adenoid Curette with the 'claw' tip are used in surgical procedures to grasp, dissect and cut out the inflamed or infected tissues. SGH's Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) unit was established in 1951, and became a specialty department in 1957. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
This is used to enable wheelchair-bound patients with only one functional upper limb to do cross-stitch or embroidery at SGH in the 1950s. To use the embroidery holder, the patient would attach it on the thigh. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Singapore General Hospital (SGH) had humble beginnings in 1821, when a wooden shed was set up in the British military camp near Bras Basah and Stamford roads to cater to injured European soldiers.

Rebuilt a few times at different locations over the next few decades, the hospital's modern history began with the opening of 800 beds in the Bowyer, Stanley and Norris blocks in 1926, when it became a public medical institution open to locals.

Today, only the Bowyer Block - with its distinctive clock tower - remains. The iconic block was gazetted as a national monument in 2009 and is where the revamped SGH museum, which is slated to open by the end of the month with a new experiential design, is located.

Collected from donations and archives, the artefacts in the museum allow visitors to learn about the origins of the hospital, which also marked the birth of medicine in Singapore, and its development into one of the 10 best hospitals in the world, according to Newsweek magazine's annual ranking of the world's best hospitals last year.

The exhibition is co-curated by SGH and the Preservation of Sites and Monuments under the National Heritage Board.

The Straits Times features some interesting artefacts from the hospital's museum and its mini gallery - such as wooden bed blocks used in the orthopaedic wards to elevate patients' beds in the 1960s, protective goggles in the physiotherapy department to protect patients' eyes during microwave therapy, stainless steel sterilising drums, and a halo-designed face shield used in the 1980s - to understand medical development and the impact on the people and community over the past 200 years.

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