Sarah Mary Josephine Winstedt
Pioneer in paediatrics in Singapore and Malaya
Sarah Mary Josephine Winstedt, one of the first women doctors in Malaya, pioneered modern infant care in rural Malaya. She went on to head Singapore’s first paediatrics ward and was recognised as one of the colony’s leading surgeons.
Sarah obtained Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees from the University of Edinburgh in 1912, and then worked as an obstetrics assistant at London’s Royal Free Hospital. She became a militant supporter of the campaign for women’s right to vote. Frequently taking part in demonstrations, she was once arrested for attempting to storm the British Parliament with fellow suffragettes and demanding to see the prime minister.
In 1913, Sarah attended a course at the London School of Tropical Medicine and also received clinical instruction in tropical diseases in the hospitals of the Seamen's Hospital Society. She then entered the Colonial Medical Services and was sent to Malaya where she reportedly helped establish one of the first women’s hospitals.
The majority of her patients were poor and lived in remote locations. To treat them, she would cycle as far as 20 miles, walk through jungles and padi fields and spend nights in kampongs. She operated on kitchen tables and devised a new method of diagnosing ruptured spleens in malaria victims.
She learned to speak Malay, which helped overcome the suspicion the locals had of western medicine. She was one of the first people to bring modern infant care to the Malayan countryside.
In 1916 Sarah went back to Britain to help treat the increasing casualties in Europe. She returned to Malaya in 1921, got married and joined the surgical unit at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) where she quickly established a reputation for outstanding work. Kenneth Black, surgery professor at the King Edward VII Medical College and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, praised her unsurpassed skill while helping him perform many complex operations.
In 1932 SGH opened Singapore’s first paediatric ward and appointed Sarah as its head. But in 1933 she retired from SGH because of her heavier social schedule following her husband’s appointment as advisor to the State of Johor. She then wrote a set of primary school textbooks on tropical hygiene. The textbooks were still in print as late as 1961. She also established the first paediatric unit at Johor Bahru’s general hospital.
In 1935, Sarah and her husband returned to Britain. She was awarded the King George V’s Silver Jubilee Medal for her public service.
Sarah Winstedt passed away, aged 86, in 1972 in England.
“She was always keen to do surgery and acquired it by any method. I remember well how she anticipated the Mohel and circumcised a Jewish child without the appropriate prayers. The consequent row lasted a long time, but seemed to give her great joy. She had a quick speech and an Irish brogue, and a ready sense of humour. Decidedly risque for those early days, her remarks amused the men and outraged the women.”
From an obituary notice in the British Medical Journal of 30 September 1972