Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.


"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Monday, September 22, 2008

3:2 Department of Bacteriology

What I should do with myself I had also not thought out clearly. I had the vague notion I was waiting to hear from Chong Eu how I could get to China to join him, but the word finally came in a way that I cannot recall, that I should put everything on hold. The China business was off. It was something I was not sorry to hear, for I was beginning to realize that taking Rosie and my children to China would make a big change in their lives, very likely, for the worse. I therefore put my mind to the question of how to make a living. I had found, somewhat to my surprise, that my father’s household in River Valley Road was still intact, apart from his own demise. When my father died, my grandfather had told Sai Soo that she could stay in the house for as long as she wished and to take care of my father’s children, all eight of them (Ee-Lay, Ee-Jin, Margaret, Robert, Edward, Grace, George and Lucy though Ee-Lay and Ee-Jin had married before my return). Sai Soo, in fact, had prepared a room for me and my family, so that I could bring my bride “home” if I wished. Sai Soo said, however, it would be natural for Rosie to want to stay with her mother, hinting that she took no offence at my staying with my in-laws, rather than at home. She also said she had some friends who were prepared to set me up in business as a doctor, something I had not thought of for I had other ideas.

Did I want to be a doctor? To make healing a business? I did not think so. I put on a tie and went to the College of Medicine in College Road (near the General Hospital) to make inquiries. Directed to the Department of Bacteriology, I met Dr. N.K. Sen, the acting head, who asked me why I wanted to take a teaching job, and why in Bacteriology. He asked if I knew that government doctors were resigning to go into private practice and he was curious why I was swimming against the tide. I told him I was not interested in private practice and had intended all along to go into teaching and research. Did he have a place for me.? “Yes,” he said, “when can you start?” “Tomorrow,” I said boldly.

Tomorrow turned out to be some weeks later after I had my X-rays and medical check-ups. On August 1, 1947, I was appointed to the staff of the King Edward VII College of Medicine as Curator of the Keith Museum and Tutor in Bacteriology. I thought that I had joined the government services, but this was a misconception. The College of Medicine was a kind of Statutory Board and governed by a Council in the domain of the Governor of the Straits Settlements. Its employees were not pensionable, but contributed to a Provident Fund. Government departments, however, were in the domain of the Colonial Secretary who was responsible to the Colonial Office in London. The distinction was that “government servants” could appeal to the Secretary for the Colonies in London, whereas “council servants” could go no higher than the Governor in Singapore. A difference the subtlety of which escaped me, but whichwas often a matter of prestige among my contemporaries.

My post was the only suitable one available and was actually on the establishment of the Department of Pathology, a government department where the Keith (Pathology) Museum belonged, but the appointee had been seconded to the College of Medicine Department of Bacteriology as there was not enough museum work to do. In fact, the Keith Museum was dormant when I was appointed. Teaching had been suspended under the Japanese administration and the museum specimens had been put in storage. I was not encouraged to revive the museum, but directed to concentrate on bacteriology.

Dr. Sen was a Bengali, recruited from the Calcutta School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that was modelled after the London institution of the same name. In fact, Dr. Sen had been trained in the London School, receiving the Diploma of Bacteriology there. His opinion was that one did not start to learn bacteriology until one had taken the London course, and urged that I should do so. The head of the department was Professor Young who was on leave when I turned up, and whom I saw only fleetingly when he returned for a brief visit before retiring on medical grounds. He had been interned by the Japanese during the occupation and when the British returned to Singapore had done a great job to restore the College of Medicine. That done, he was going home for good. Dr. Sen had not been interned, being regarded by the Japanese as a friendly non-combatant. During the war, Dr. Sen was occupied making vaccines and anti-sera and now hewas taking over from Professor Young.

The first batch of students whom I was to teach had been in first year medicine when the Japanese came and were allowed to resume their studies when the British came back. They had just passed the First Professional Examination in Anatomy and Physiology and were to start studying medicine on patients as well as Bacteriology, Materia Medica and Pathology. Many of them were from Malaya and stayed in the FMS Hostel nearby. To my surprise, one of the students was my former class-mate in the Queen’s Scholarship class, Choo Jim Eng, and through him I got to know many of his class-mates including Chee Phui Hung, an out-spoken student leader fromPenang who did not mind telling the Principal of the Medical College (with respect, of course) how he could do his work better.
I had to go back to school, as it were, to learn what I had to teach. I did not give any lectures at first, only served as demonstrator in the practical classes to show students what to do, often having learned it only recently. In my first year I did not give any lectures at all, only sat in on Dr. Sen’s lectures and braced myself for the day I had to do it on my own. My time in the laboratory was spent learning how to prepare class specimens and doing serological tests. I learned to my surprise that hospital specimens were examined by the Pathology Department whose bacteriologist was Dr. Da Silva. These were so-called routine specimens that were not the concern of a teaching department such as ours. A curious dichotomy. Dr. Sen did do some tests on blood specimens sent in by private practitioners; in the main they were tests for what we now call “socially transmitted diseases, ” the results of which were confidential!

One day Dr. Sen, now Professor Sen, went to see his doctor because he had been having a persistent pain in the middle of his back, just under his left shoulder blade. The doctor referred Dr. Sen to a cardiac specialist who told him he probably had a narrowing of his coronary arteries, to take three months complete rest and come back for re-examination. No angiograms (radiographs of coronary arteries) in those days, else the diagnosis could have been made within a few days. So Professor Sen went off and left me in total charge as acting head, but when he returned, the specialist told him his condition had not improved and could probably worsen. Professor Sen then decided to resign and return to India to adopt a stress-less life style. My acting headship was thereupon extended while the University* advertised for a new professor. In due course, James H. Hale was appointed, first as Senior Lecturer, then as Professor to replace Professor Sen as head of the Department of Bacteriology, and things took a new turn.

* In 1949 the King Edward VII College of Medicine became the Medicine Faculty, and the former Raffles College became the Faculties of Arts and Science, of the University of Malaya.

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