Professor Winifred Danaraj

Professor Winifred Danaraj nee Lewis was born on the 8th of August 1916. She read Medicine at the King Edward VII College of Medicine, Singapore and graduated as Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery in 1938. On graduation, she served in various states in Malaya, including during the Second World War (1942 – 1945). This was followed by a stint of private practice (1947‐1949).The war years delayed her postgraduate training. However, in 1952 she was able to obtain 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 also in 1952.

Application for the Chair of Social Medicine and Public Health, University of Malaya
In October 1949, she joined the Faculty of Medicine in Singapore, as a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine and Public Health. She was promoted to senior lecturer in 1958. In 1961, with the resignation of the incumbent, she became the head of the department.

She 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, while her husband, Professor T.J. Danaraj was appointed Foundation Dean and Professor of Medicine. Her appointment as the first professor to the chair in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine (SPM) 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.

A Teaching Tool
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 students 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 569 graduates, 407 local and 162 foreign candidates.

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.

By: Dato’ Dr Sirajoon Noor Ghani