Benjamin Sheares: Pioneering Obstetrician, Compassionate Doctor, and Singapore's Second President
Benjamin Sheares, born on August 12, 1907, and departing from this world on May 12, 1981, holds a remarkable legacy as Singapore's second president. However, his journey to the presidency was paved with decades of unwavering dedication to advancing Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O&G) standards in Singapore. This path was set in motion by his deep concern for the high maternal mortality rates that plagued the nation in the 1930s.
Championing Change in Healthcare
Before ascending to the presidency, Sheares spent thirty years in tireless pursuit of improving O&G standards. He began his journey at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH), defying colonial biases that were prevalent in the British-run colony. His remarkable achievements included the conversion of KKH into an O&G hospital after World War II and pioneering the use of the lower segment method for Caesarean sections, a groundbreaking technique that significantly reduced maternal mortality rates, transforming them from 70-80 deaths per 10,000 deliveries in the 1930s to fewer than 10 by 1955.
The Father of Obstetrics and Gynaecology
From a young age, Benjamin Sheares aspired to be a doctor, a dream he pursued relentlessly. His journey was fraught with obstacles, such as the limited opportunities for Asians to become doctors during the colonial era. Nevertheless, through scholarship and sheer determination, Sheares climbed the ranks to become the head of the O&G department and medical superintendent at KKH. His dedication to patients extended beyond surgical skills, as he was known for his kind bedside manner and even provided free treatment to the underprivileged.
Sheares' dedication to medicine and research was evident in his numerous published papers, addressing a range of topics from infertility to surgical techniques. He gained international recognition for developing the "Sheares Procedure," a technique to create an artificial vagina for those born without one.
A Family Man
Despite his demanding schedule, Sheares was a devoted family man. He married Yeo Seh Geok, a trained midwife, in 1939, and the couple had three children. He cherished family moments, often bringing home ice cream or taking his family out for movies and meals on Sundays.
Singapore's Second President
At the age of 63, Benjamin Sheares was approached by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to assume the role of Singapore's second president. Despite being a private person, Sheares accepted the position out of a profound sense of duty to the nation. Elected by parliament in December 1970, he carried out his presidential duties with quiet dignity, opting to live in his own home rather than the Istana. To stay informed about current affairs and international politics, outside his medical expertise, he devoted himself to extensive reading.
During his decade as president, Sheares continued to stay active in the medical field, displaying an unwavering commitment to both his medical and presidential responsibilities. However, his health deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with a tumor in his lungs in November 1980. Despite his declining health, he persevered in his duties until he fell into a coma on May 3, 1981, and passed away on May 12, 1981, with deep regret for not seeing through his third presidential term.
A Lasting Legacy
Benjamin Sheares' legacy lives on, both in the medical field and in the hearts of those he touched. His wake at the Istana was attended by 85,000 people, including former patients whose lives he had saved. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew paid a moving tribute to Sheares, underscoring the deep bond of friendship they shared. Benjamin Sheares left an indelible mark on Singapore, remembered not only as a medical pioneer but also as a dedicated, compassionate leader.
In honour of his life, a road and bridge were named after Singapore’s second president