The COVID-19 virus that has afflicted millions globally has made us acutely aware of the fragility of our bodies, and ignited a race against time to find a cure. Attempts to develop vaccines to shield ourselves against the infection continue to be made across the world.

Restoring the weakened body to health can be a long process, involving complex systems of both medical and non-medical practices. While hospitals and clinics dispense prescribed medicines and medical halls offer traditional alternatives, home remedies passed down over generations are still believed to help in recovery and prevent illness. Ranging from bracing herbal decoctions to tisanes brewed from condiments found in the kitchen pantry, these remedies are part of our shared knowledge.

 
 

This section showcases several images related to early hospitals and medical halls in Singapore that played a major role in helping the sick. It also features non-medical options that have been used to restore one’s health over the years, some of which are still available today.

 

The Maintenance of Health
in the Tropics (2nd edition) by William John Simpson

In this book, which was first written in 1905, Simpson advises his readers on taking precautions against tropical illnesses such as snakebite, malaria and cholera, among others. He encountered such diseases as the Health Officer for Calcutta in the late 1800s and later in Singapore, where he led an inquiry on tuberculosis in 1906.

1916 | Paper | 19 x 12.5 x 1.6cm

 

Gift of The Raffles Hotel Museum | 2014-00030

Interestingly, this book was commissioned by the London School of Tropical Medicine, which received financial backing from the colonial office. This was because the turn of the century brought a growing recognition that illness among colonial subjects could affect trade and investment. To protect the metropole, and the increased number of Europeans travelling to the Far East, more funds were finally directed to the serious study of tropical medicine as a discipline.

 
 

Postcard titled “Singapore General Hospital”

The Singapore General Hospital (SGH) began in 1821 as a group of wooden sheds in the cantonment for troops situated near Bras Basah and Stamford Road. It is regarded as Singapore’s first general hospital and also the oldest.

Early 20th century | Postcard | 9.6 x 15.5cm | 2001-03496

After relocating several times, it finally settled at Sepoy Lines along Outram Road in 1882. The modern history of the SGH began on 29 March 1926 with a total of 800 beds housed in three hospital blocks. Today, only the distinctive clock tower of the original Bowyer Block remains – it has been gazetted as a national monument.

 

Postcard featuring the British Military Hospital
(now Alexandra Hospital)

In 1938, the British built this hospital to serve as a principal hospital for the British troops and their families. It was the largest and best equipped facility outside of the United Kingdom.

Published by A.S.M.K. & Co, Singapore

 

c1970 | Postcard | 8.9 x 14.1cm | 2008-03916

During World War Two, Japanese troops attacked the hospital on 14 February 1942 in retaliation against retreating Allied soldiers who fired at them from the hospital grounds. They killed an estimated 50 staff and patients that day and 150 more the following morning. In 1971, with the withdrawal of the British from Singapore, the local government took over the management of the hospital, and renamed and reopened it as a public hospital.

In 1998, the National Heritage Board declared Alexandra Hospital a historic site because of its services during the war. It was gazetted as a conserved building in 2014.

 

Image of Tan Tock Seng Hospital

This photograph shows the second site of Tan Tock Seng Hospital at Serangoon Road near the junction of Balestier Road. Built with a generous donation by the philanthropist Tan Tock Seng in 1844, the first hospital was located in Pearl’s Hill and called the Chinese Pauper Hospital.

c1876 | Photograph | 19.9 x 25.2cm | 1994-04838

The hospital moved several times over the years, before shifting to its current location in Novena in 2000. Its site at Balestier-Serangoon was handed to the Cantonese community to build the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital.

After transitioning into a general hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital has achieved many firsts in the fields of neurology, cardiology, rheumatology and geriatrics in Singapore. During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, the hospital served as a quarantine facility to treat infected patients.

 

Image of an old woman at Kwong Wai Shiu Free Hospital

This poignant image is by Lee Sow Lim, one of Singapore’s pioneering photographers. The history of this well-known hospital on Serangoon Road can be traced back to the early 20th century, when a group of Cantonese leaders established the Kwong Wai Shiu Free Hospital (KWSFH) in 1910.

c1970 | Photograph by Lee Sow Lim | 43.2 x 58.7cm | 2006-00085

Pioneer leader Wong Ah Fook, who was the first president of the hospital, signed the Kwong Wai Shiu Free Hospital Ordinance in 1911, under which the old Tan Tock Seng hospital site on Serangoon Road was leased for 99 years at an annual rent of one dollar. The first three characters of the hospital’s name refers to the three Canton prefectures – Guangzhou (Kwong-Chau), Huizhou (Wai-Chau) and Zhaoqing (Shiu-Heng).

The hospital provided free outpatient services to the public and free hospitalisation to immigrants from Canton provinces. In 1911, it included inpatient, medical and maternity services comprising of both Western and Chinese medicine. Despite the difficulties of running a free hospital, it continued operating even during World War Two by collecting the bodies of war victims and conducting funeral services. The hospital continued to expand and improve its facilities, and in 1974, it opened its doors to all patients regardless of race, religion or dialect.

 
 

Hospital admission records

This record of hospital admissions was kept by Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston, an Australian who served with the 2/9th Field Ambulance, one of a number of mobile medical units that treated soldiers on the frontline.

Early 20th century | Postcard | 9.6 x 15.5cm | 2001-03496

Johnston was captured after the fall of Singapore and sent to Changi prison camp. Although he belonged to the medical corps, he was not spared from illness or injury, even being admitted to his own unit at one point. Many prisoners of war suffered from dysentery and malaria, like Johnston, but he was also unlucky enough to have contracted dengue fever while already in hospital.

In addition to writing down his dates of admission and discharge, Johnston also recorded the locations of the field hospitals, providing a unique way of tracking the progress of the Battle of Malaya. His first entry in November 1941 was made when the 13th Australian General Hospital (AGH) was stationed in Tampoi, Johor Bahru. He was then admitted to Saint Andrew's Cathedral before being sent back to 13th AGH, which had by then moved to St Patrick's School in Katong. After the fall of Singapore, the 13th AGH combined with all the other medical units to form Roberts Hospital in Changi.

 
 

Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SATA)
campaign leaflet in Mandarin

This leaflet promotes the use of SATA’s mobile X-ray vans to screen for tuberculosis. SATA was formed as a charity organisation and had its beginnings during the Japanese Occupation when a group of inmates were interned in Changi Jail and Sime Relocation Camp.

1950s−1960s | Paper | 19.5 x 13.5cm | 2007-52717

SATA was registered in 1947 and aimed to detect, treat and eradicate this highly contagious disease. In addition to diagnosing and treating tuberculosis, SATA also began to offer immunisation against it in the form of the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine.

Following the decline in tuberculosis cases in Singapore, SATA shifted to offering community care and in 2009 rebranded itself as SATA CommHealth.

Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SATA)
campaign leaflet in Mandarin

This leaflet promotes the use of SATA’s mobile X-ray vans to screen for tuberculosis. SATA was formed as a charity organisation and had its beginnings during the Japanese Occupation when a group of inmates were interned in Changi Jail and Sime Relocation Camp.

1950s−1960s | Paper | 19.5 x 13.5cm | 2007-52717

SATA was registered in 1947 and aimed to detect, treat and eradicate this highly contagious disease. In addition to diagnosing and treating tuberculosis, SATA also began to offer immunisation against it in the form of the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine.

Following the decline in tuberculosis cases in Singapore, SATA shifted to offering community care and in 2009 rebranded itself as SATA CommHealth.

 
 

How to Keep TB Away an illustrated booklet reprinted from the SATA Bulletin and published by the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association

This illustrated booklet is an example of how public education was carried out to explain the dangers of tuberculosis (TB), a highly infectious disease that attacks the lungs and can spread to other parts of the body.

1950s−1970s | Paper | 18.2 x 13 x 0.1cm | 2018-00505

It offers five rules to protect oneself and one’s family – having a chest X-ray every six months; keeping the body healthy by consuming a balanced diet; getting a BCG vaccination; using sun, soap and disinfectants to stop germs from spreading; and being clean.

After the end of the Japanese occupation, tuberculosis was a serious problem in Singapore. Over the years, SATA’s team of doctors and professionals continued to provide diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for people suffering from the disease. By 1960, they had conducted X-rays for more than 250,000 people and detected more than 4,000 tuberculosis cases in a population of 1.6 million.

 
 

A gift voucher of Thong Chai
Medical Institution

The Thong Chai Medical Institution located on Wayang Street (demolished in 1960) was established to help the poor. Started by a group of migrants from China in 1867, the name Thong Chai Yee Say was derived from the Chinese words “tong” (the same) and “ji” (to help or relieve).

1955 | Paper | 30 x 15.1cm | 2000-00997

 
 

It provided free consultations, treatment and herbal medicines for the sick and the needy. In 1892, the group moved to a site granted by the then-Governor Cecil Clementi-Smith and renamed themselves the Thong Chai Medical Institution. In 1960, they moved from their Wayang Street premises to a bigger building modelled after traditional Chinese architecture, which was gazetted in 1973. They subsequently moved to their new building on Chin Swee Road in 1976.

 

 
 
 

Medical Office, Singapore (神农大药房) advertisement featuring
Western medical products

Medical Office, Singapore (神农大药房) was a dispensary located at 300 North Bridge Road.

 

1920 | Paper | 41.7 x 100.5cm | 2000-03569

Featuring a healthy and well-dressed lady in a cheongsam, this advertisement highlights various products available in the shop, including gripe mixture for colicky babies, tropical lung tonic and medicines for skin rashes.

The original Medical Office was first set up at the corner of Bras Basah and North Bridge roads by a German immigrant in 1892. After World War One, it was taken over by a group led by its former lead dispenser Foo Khee How.

Medical Office, Singapore (神农大药房) advertisement

Medical Office, Singapore (神农大药房) was a dispensary located at 300 North Bridge Road.

c1920s | Paper | 63 x 47cm | 2000-08287

Featuring a healthy and well-dressed lady in a cheongsam, this advertisement highlights various products available in the shop, including gripe mixture for colicky babies, tropical lung tonic and medicines for skin rashes.

The original Medical Office was first set up at the corner of Bras Basah and North Bridge roads by a German immigrant in 1892. After World War One, it was taken over by a group led by its former lead dispenser Foo Khee How.

 
 

A set of acupuncture needles used in
a traditional Chinese medical hall

Acupuncture is a technique commonly practised in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Needles such as these are inserted into specific meridians in the body to stimulate the flow of life force known as “qi” and to restore balance.

Early to mid-20th century | Metal | 5.0 x 0.5cm | 2001-03086

The technique is used to treat various types of ailments. In addition to inserting the needle, the doctor gently twirls it and sometimes applies electrical pulses.

 
 

Packaging for Brand’s Essence of Chicken, UK

The manufacturer’s advice on this Brand’s Essence of Chicken bottle reads: “In case of serious illness and extreme exhaustion it should be given as often as the patient can take it or when prescribed by the doctor.”

Leaflet (multilingual) 24.8 x 22.6cm

Paper box 7.3 x 5.3 x 5.3cm


Bottle 7 x 5 x 5cm

2018-00670-001; -002; -003

The original recipe for Brand’s Essence of Chicken dates to the early 19th century and is attributed to Henderson William Brand, the royal chef in Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom. To help the ailing King George IV regain his health, Brand devised an essence of chicken drink. In 1835, Brand retired and recreated his recipe for commercial sale to the sick. In 1897, the monarchy issued a Royal Warrant in recognition of the product’s quality. By the 1920s, this well-known tonic began to be sold in Asia where it proved to be a great success as a health supplement. In 1999, the first Brand’s Museum opened in Taiwan.

 
 

Container for Hacks brand cough drops

“Hacks” medicated sweets and cough mixtures have been produced by the British company White Hudson in Southport, England, since the 1900s. Today, they are world famous.

c1940 | Tin, paper | 27 x 14.9 x 12.6cm | 2007-55034

“Hacks” was first marketed in Singapore in the 1950s. Its sole local agent was Barkath Stores, an Indian Muslim business which gained a name for the brand here. Additional flavours were later introduced.

In 1962, the Singapore High Court granted an injunction restraining a Singapore company, Asian Organisation Limited, from allegedly passing off its “Pecto” medicated cough sweets as “Hacks” medicated cough drops. The “cough sweet row” even went up to the Privy Council in London.

 
 

Illustrated booklet in Mandarin with advertisement for Halisun halibut liver oil

This advertisement is sure to bring back childhood memories to many, of consuming some form of fish liver oil as a health supplement. The Halisun halibut liver oil featured here was a brand from Shanghai that came in both capsule and liquid forms.

Mid-20th century | Paper | 18.4 x 12.9 x 0.2cm | 2001-01461

Fish liver oil is believed to be beneficial, especially for children, due to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin D, which help to prevent diseases arising from vitamin deficiencies, such as rickets. The benefits of halibut liver oil are represented on the poster itself, showing a malnourished boy on the right and a healthier version of him on the left, presumably after consuming halibut liver oil over time.

 

 
 

Three Legs brand cough syrupbottle package

This bottle of cough syrup was produced by the Wen Ken Group, a Singapore family-owned Traditional
Chinese Medicine company. Its trademark logo featuring three legs clad in trousers and connected at the
hip illustrate the company’s values of gratitude, trustworthiness and empathy.

1950s−1990s | Paper

12.1 x 4.4 x 2.6cm | 2010-01253

 
 

The product is marketed as a cure to illnesses affecting the throat, chest and lungs. Cough syrups such as these usually contain an expectorant to loosen the congestion in the chest and throat caused by a cold. Once the phlegm in the lungs is cleared, the person gets some relief.

 

 
 
 
 

Rhyme for taking pulse

This rhyme belonged to a Chinese physician, who was the donor’s father. The document
outlines how taking a patient’s pulse is important to understanding the root of his or her illness. The artefact presented below is currently on display in our Surviving Syonan Gallery.
Click here to check out the beat-box remix we created, inspired by this artefact. 
Click here to download the beat-box remix lyrics.

1940s | Paper | 21 x 13.3 cm | Gift of Wu Sijing | 2002-00267