From the time he was a little boy, there was little doubt that Benjamin Henry Sheares – born in Singapore on 12 August 1907 – aspired to be a doctor.

Defying odds in the colonial days when Asians were marginalised, Sheares attended the Raffles Institution and in 1923 and won a scholarship to enrol into the King Edward VII College of Medicine (KECOM) where he outshone his peers in academic performance – not only did he pass his final examinations in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O&G) with distinction, he was also awarded four medals by the College.

A humble doctor with fearless ambition

After graduating in 1929, he began his career as an Assistant Medical Officer at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Just two years into his service, Sheares became the first Singaporean and only assistant in the O&G Department at SGH after Professor English – who was aware of Sheares’ distinction in his O&G examinations – requested for his transfer to the department. Six years later, he was also posted to be in charge of all obstetric patients at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH).

Sheares passed his final examinations in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O&G) with distinction. Photo credit: National Archives
Sheares passed his final examinations in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O&G) with distinction. Photo credit: National Archives

In 1939, Sheares was awarded the Queen’s Fellowship to attend a two-year postgraduate training in Britain before sitting for the Member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (MRCOG) examinations, but due to the commencement of World War II in Europe, was forced to postpone his training.

When the Japanese Occupation took place from 1942 to 1945, KKH was renamed Chuo Byoin and Dr Tanaka was elected as the Medical Superintendent. However, he only cared for Japanese patients, so Sheares was ordered to assume the role of his deputy and was responsible for all Singaporean patients.

Despite severe shortages of hospital staff and finances, Sheares maintained an efficient hospital service. He used the opportunity to develop the lower-segment Caesarean Section (LSCS) – an approach previously disallowed by Professor English – which was subsequently proven to have lower mortality and morbidity rates than the more common upper-segment approach. He became the first doctor in Singapore to perform the LSCS and the first local doctor to publish a paper in the Journal of British Medical Association in 1940.

Pioneer of the “Sheares Operation”

After the Japanese Occupation, Sheares proceeded to take up his previously awarded Queen’s Fellowship at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital, and passed his MRCOG examination after only six months’ attachment, becoming the first Singaporean to achieve the fellowship.

Before he could commence with the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) course in Edinburgh, he was summoned by the Governor of the Straits Settlements in 1948 to return and serve as acting professor of O&G in KECOM, and eventually became a full-time professor of O&G in 1951.

In 1952, he obtained his Doctor of Medicine (MD) from University of Malaya in Singapore, and his abiding interest in clinical research led him to publish many papers in O&G. In 1956, he wrote a landmark thesis, in which through careful observation and detailed studying of the human anatomy and embryology, Sheares developed a new technique for constructing a vagina in patients with aplasia or congenital and acquired atresia of the vagina.

His approach was successfully performed by other surgeons and he won international acclaim. This operative technique was fully described and illustrated by him in the Journal of O&G of the British Empire and became known as the “Sheares Operation”.

From doctor to President of Singapore

President Sheares with former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson. Photo credit: National Archives
President Sheares with former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson. Photo credit: National Archives

Sheares retired in March 1961 to enter private practice shortly after becoming first president of the O&G Society of Singapore, but at 63 years of age, on 30 December 1970, he was elected President of the Republic of Singapore by the Parliament.

During his terms as President, he continued to be recognised for his work in medicine, and was awarded the Honorary Knight of the Grand Order of Bath by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in February 1972. He also became the Chancellor of the University of Singapore, and in 1975, was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Medicine, England.

He continued to serve Singapore with thoroughness and distinction though his health began to decline, but on 12 May 1981, after 10 years as President, Sheares slipped into a coma and passed away.

Over 85,000 people attended his wake to pay their final respects and the O&G Society started the Benjamin Henry Sheares Memorial Lecture in his honour. In his tribute, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that Sheares had given the people “a lesson on how to die, how to leave this world in grace and dignity,” and it was without doubt that Sheares was a man of marvel who made a historical mark in Singapore and the rest of the world. MIMS

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