Over the past year, I was privileged to be involved in a history project that was actually funded by the National Heritage Board (number 26 on this list). I was then working at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), helping with the transition of the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC) to the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID, which has its own Wikipedia page as befits modern times). Staff and patients were to be shifted out of the old sprawling buildings of the CDC compound to the new SGD940 million complex, and the compound was to be re-designated for residential development under the URA Master Plan. A little wistful, I had commissioned photographer Pearl Gan to take photos of the compound and some of the staff at work, while other amateur photographers working at CDC as well as the TTSH photographer had also been busy digitally capturing last memories of the place.
Then Dr Loh Kah Seng – historian, friend and collaborator on the “History of Tuberculosis in Singapore” project (the book is also due to be released soon) – suggested that we put up a proposal to document the history of Middleton Hospital and communicable diseases control in Singapore to the National Heritage Board. I remember mainly having two thoughts at that time:
- “You mean we can actually get money to do such projects in Singapore?”
- “Are there not already articles and books about CDC in Singapore?”
Other than the Singapore Infopedia article, I remembered that there was also a commemorative book on CDC published in 2007 at what was thought to be its hundredth year of existence. There were also a number of – mainly “feel good” but nonetheless also informative – articles and books on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Singapore. What new information could we possibly unearth?
But I was also intrigued at the possibilities. It would be great to be able to record down the memories of people who had worked at CDC while it was still Middleton Hospital, and to be able to capture a few patient perspectives as well (I was sanguine about getting many former patients to recount their experiences there). Our view of infectious diseases in Singapore had become too much of a “medical perspective” in recent years, with infectious diseases specialists and other physicians front and centre. This has always struck me as being imbalanced, and was further reinforced by work on the history of tuberculosis here.
In any case, we were fortunate that 2019 was Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration, with more funding provided for history and heritage projects. And our proposal was funded.
The work for this project has been completed by Kah Seng and his team, and the results are slowly being published, which I may elaborate in future posts. The first of these was on the origins of Middleton Hospital itself, published in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. It was dumbfounding to note that the concept of having a “modern” infectious diseases hospital was debated for over 20 years before it was finally built – I felt that we had undergone a similar experience in building the NCID more than a hundred years later. Some of that historical research has also contributed towards a proposal to conserve one or more buildings within the CDC compound (the Straits Times writeup is behind a paywall here), and it will be great if that is successful.
One relatively early finding was that the date of the opening of Middleton Hospital as put forth by Singapore Infopedia and other articles including the NCID Wikipedia page is inaccurate: the facility that became Middleton Hospital in 1920 was actually opened in 1913.