International Women’s Day – Professor Winifred Danaraj a leader in Public Health

Professor Winifred Danaraj graduated as Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery in 1938 from the King Edward VII College of Medicine, Singapore. She joined the Faculty of Medicine in Singapore, as a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine and Public Health in 1949. In 1952 she completed her Master of Public Health (magna cum laude) from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, U.S.A. and the Diploma in Child Health from the Royal College of Physicians of London and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. After completing her studies she continues to teach in the Department and was promoted to senior lecturer in 1958 and became the Head of the department in 1961.

Professor W. Danaraj was the first woman to be appointed to an academic medical chair in the University of Malaya in Singapore, and later became the first local person to be appointed as Professor of Social Medicine and Public Health. In 1964 she accepted the post of Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine in the newly established medical school in Kuala Lumpur. She became the First Head of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine (SPM). This gave her the opportunity to develop a department with her own vision and philosophy as to the direction the department must take in pursuing a change in the field of public health in the then developing Malaya. Her academic and administrative skills honed while in Singapore enabled her to develop the department despite acute staff shortage. She was able to recruit experienced staff from overseas while encouraging young Malaysian doctors to pursue a career in public health. Many were sent overseas to read for higher degrees and also to gain valuable experience in the field of public health. On return, they became the future academic staff of the department.

She was also involved in the development of the medical curriculum which gave emphasis to ‘integrated teaching’ and also relevant to the needs of a developing country. Social and preventive medicine became important elements in the undergraduate curriculum, in the face of opposition from her clinical colleagues. She worked closely with the Ministry of Health Malaysia so as to expose medical students, early in their studies, to problems faced by the public health officers in the various districts. This was done by rural visits as well as postings to the districts. The first intake of medical students to the newly established Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya was in 1964 and they completed a 5-year programme, graduating in 1969.

Professor W. Danaraj did not rest on her laurels but embarked on planning for a Master of Public Health programme. This was to provide more specialists in the field of public health to meet the need of the health services in the country, as it was the policy of the government to uplift the health of the rural people, who at that time consisted of 75% of the population. The programme was introduced in 1974. Since then it has produced more than 900 local and foreign graduates.

Professor W. Danaraj could be seen from afar as she was a ‘big’ person with a ‘big heart’ and her signature instrument was a large blackboard set‐square which she used in teaching. She loved teaching and her lectures were well prepared and rich in facts. Her English was immaculate, spiced with wit and humour. Students had to be punctual if once too often, were ‘invited to tea’. Books borrowed from her department had to be returned on time, otherwise, their names will be mentioned in dispatches, with their names up on the notice board, under the heading of ‘in disgrace’ for first-time offenders and ‘in deep disgrace’ for recalcitrants.

She was a person of warmth and a deep sense of humour. She always had an ‘ear’ for her staff and students and was always available to those who sought her wisdom on matters personal or otherwise. Her staffs were her personal friends and her colleagues enjoyed her company. All was forgiven at Christmas time as she organized a Christmas party in her department and all staff and students of the faculty were invited. It stretched from morning coffee till lunch, and if there were left‐over’s until afternoon tea. She lived to see the transformation of a hill covered with scrub into a medical complex comprising of the faculty, teaching hospital and student community. Her untimely death in 1974, after a long illness, was unfortunate as it robbed the faculty of an icon, a good teacher and a pillar of strength to the staff and students.

Many professors will pass through this department but none will be able to leave an impact as she did. They do not make professors like that anymore strict, jovial with a sense of humour to wit.

Written by: Dato’ Dr Sirajoon Noor Ghani and Prof Victor Hoe

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