Tan Sau Fun
First and only female professor of chemistry in Singapore
Professor Tan Sau Fun grew up in a large home in Hong Kong with the 18 siblings that her father’s six wives produced. Sau Fun, who was the 15th child, was an excellent student and topped her class year after year. She got her BSc (Hons) from the University of Hong Kong in 1952 and the MSc in 1954, and then went to University College in London on a scholarship where she completed her PhD in in chemistry, under the guidance of a Nobel Laureate, in just 18 months.
It was on the month-long boat trip from Hong Kong to London via Singapore in 1954 that she met Singaporean Tan Wee Kian, who was on his way to London to read law. They continued their courtship while studying in London. As Sau Fun’s work on her doctorate picked up speed, he accelerated his studies to keep pace. They came to Singapore in 1957 and got married.
Sau Fun taught at Singapore Chinese Girls School for a year or so while waiting for a job at what is now the National University of Singapore (NUS). She joined the Department of Chemistry in 1960 and remained there till she retired. She quickly established a reputation as an effective teacher and research supervisor, always showing real interest in and concern for her students and colleagues. She was simple and modest as a person, and was affectionately known in the department as ‘Mama Tan’.
In 1986 Sau Fun was appointed a full professor, the first – and still the only – woman to become a professor of chemistry at NUS. She spent 35 years at NUS, and later said the best part of her job was teaching and interacting with her students. Years after her retirement she was able to recall many of her students, and she took great satisfaction from hearing about their successes in life.
When Sau Fun died in 2011 aged 80, some of her former students got together to discuss what could be done to honour and remember her. With the support of the Faculty of Science, a drive to raise funds was launched, and the Tan Sau Fun Bursary was started to commemorate her name and recognise her contributions to the education and welfare of her students. The bursary provides annual grants of $2,500 to deserving and needy chemistry undergraduates.
"Without them, I wouldn't have been able to do any research work!' Professor Tan advised students to cherish their youth.
They should not only take their studies seriously but they must also set aside time to enjoy other aspects of their life.
She believed that half the battle's won with the right attitude."