By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times

Do you know what a 1950s dental chair looked like? Or that the late president Benjamin Sheares was the first Singaporean to specialise in gynaecology?

While a roving exhibition of Singapore's medical milestones has just been rolled out this week, several health-care institutions have long showcased their heritage in their own museums.

Singapore General Hospital (SGH), Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) are among those with in-house museums open to the public free of charge. They each attract thousands of visitors a year, from students to visiting doctors to passers-by.

"It's a good place to visit when waiting for test results or visiting relatives in the hospital," said housewife Eileen Lee, 42, who chanced upon SGH's museum recently.

At IMH, the Woodbridge Mu-seum tells the story of a place that started as the 30-bed Insane Hospital in 1841 and is now a 2,000-bed facility.   Situated on the second level of the main block, the museum features old straitjackets used to restrain patients and wicker shields that nurses used to protect themselves.

Visitors can read anecdotes, such as one about how mental health patients in the 1960s were from time to time rewarded for good behaviour with cigarettes confiscated by the Customs Department.

But what retired nurse Catherine Chua, 66, finds hard to forget is a machine used for electro-convulsive therapy in the 1960s. Doctors used it to deliver a small electric current to the temples of schizophrenic patients.

"Though the current is delivered in a split second, the patient's hands and body would be shaking.   His back would arch and you could see him biting hard on the mouth gag," said Madam Chua, who took The Straits Times on a tour of the museum recently.

"It was probably the scariest thing I saw as a young nurse," she said. But treatment methods have since improved. Since the 1980s, patients have been given sedatives, which make it much less painful, said Madam Chua, who is now a volunteer manager at IMH.

Medical history is also documented at the Singapore General Hospital Museum, a $1.5 million facility opened in 2005 at Singapore's oldest hospital.

SGH started life in 1821 in a wooden shed in the British troops' cantonment near the Singapore River.   It moved to its current location in Outram Road in 1882.   The area used to house Sepoy soldiers, soldiers recruited from the native population of India by the European colonial powers, earning SGH the name of "si pai por" among Singapore's older generation.

Located at the Bowyer Block, the SGH Museum houses artefacts such as the medical theses of Dr Sheares and photographs of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad with his medical class in the 1940s.

Included too are small things, such as the notebook that canteen stallholder Ah Leng used to keep track of credit owed to him by medical students who would gather at the canteen for tea. Ah Leng's canteen was also where Tun Mahathir shared good times with his wife, also a medical student, over bowls of mee soup.

Much work goes into preserving museum artefacts for posterity. "We keep records of the items and try to dust them down once a month," said SGH's museum curator Toby Huynh.

Heritage is also prized at TTSH, set up in 1844 and the second-oldest hospital in Singapore.

The centrepiece of its first-floor museum is a stone slab outlining Malacca merchant Tan Tock Seng's charitable intentions in setting up a hospital for the "sick poor of all nations".

Sales manager Thomas Yip, 42, was most taken by the thick injection needles used in the past.

"We complain about pain, but it really must have been an experience to have an injection back then," said Mr Yip, who stumbled upon the museum while visiting his father recently.   "Hospital museums are really treasures waiting to be discovered," he said.

Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.