Five historical items from Singapore’s fight against viruses and disease

This story was first published on The A List SG on 30 October 2020.

Singapore is no stranger to the fight against virus, infectious disease and public health crises. A new online exhibition, Every Body Plays A Part, offers a fascinating look at how the Lion City braved public health challenges in the past, only to emerge stronger and healthier. 

The online exhibition, organised by the National Museum of Singapore, comprises artefacts such as archival documents, paintings and medical instruments used in the past, many of which are being showcased for the first time by the museum. 

Here are five interesting artefacts not to be missed:

International certification of vaccination or revaccination against cholera 

International certification of vaccination or revaccination against cholera online exhibition

Cholera, an infectious diease that causes severe diarrhoea and vomiting due to the bacterium vibro cholerae often found in contaminated water, used to be a common ailment around the world in the late-1800s. To prevent the spread of the disease, travellers to and out of Singapore had to be vaccinated against cholera. This international certificate, belonging to a Mdm Lee Ah Noi, records that she was vaccinated on 10 May 1961, and deemed fit for overseas travel.

Hand-coloured postcard depicting St John’s Island, Straits Settlements

Hand-coloured postcard depicting St John’s Island, Straits Settlements online exhibition

This postcard shows immigrants at the port on St John’s Island. The scene is likely one from the 1900s, where immigrants to Singapore had to be quarantined on the island and declared healthy before they could enter Singapore. By the 1930s, St John’s Island had as many as 22 quarrantine camps which could accommodate at least 6,000 people in total. There were also hospitals, as well as a dispensary and a laboratory on the island, providing those in quarrantine with medical supplies, vaccines and treatments. 

Portrait of Lim Boon Keng  

Portrait of Lim Boon Keng  online exhibition

A prominent figure in Singapore history, Dr Lim Boon Keng was not only a doctor but also a scholar, entrepreneur and social reformer. Medically trained in Edinburgh, he went on to establish himself as a well-known physician and social reformer in Singapore, while also dedicating his life to public service. He was instrumental in the campaign against opium smoking, and he opened a refuge for opium addicts in the early 1900s.

Illustrated booklet titled How To Keep TB Away

Illustrated booklet titled How To Keep TB Away online exhibition

This booklet, dating from the 1950s to 1970s, was published by the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association. It was used to educate the public about the dangers of tuberculosis, which used to be common in Singapore following the Japanese Occupation. The highly infectious disease attacks the lungs and other parts of the body, afflicting patients with persistent coughing and chest pain. The booklet identifies five ways to keep the disease at bay, including getting a BCG vaccination.

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

Acupuncture is a form of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine, where needles are inserted through the skin to stimulate specific points on the body and relieve discomfort caused by health conditions. This set of acupuncture needles dates from the early to mid-20th century. Acupuncture is still common in Singapore, although much thinner needles are used these days. 

(Photos: National Museum of Singapore)

Check out the rest of Every Body Plays A Part: A Showcase of Public Health and Responses in Singapore online exhibition here

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