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Sarah Mary Josephine Winstedt, née O’Flynn (Dr) (b. 4 April 1886, Six Mile Bridge, County Clare, Ireland – d. 9 September 1972, Havant, Hampshire, England), addressed as Lady Winstedt from 1935, was one of the first women doctors in Malaya. She pioneered modern infant care in rural Malaya through home visits, became head of Singapore’s first paediatrics ward as well as one of the colony’s leading surgeons and wrote respected textbooks on tropical hygiene.
Education and early life
Sarah O’Flynn was educated at convent schools in Ireland and France before entering the University of Edinburgh. In 1912, she received her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees then went to London’s Royal Free Hospital as an obstetrical assistant. During this time, she became a militant supporter of the campaign for women’s right to vote and frequently demonstrated. After attempting to storm parliament with other suffragettes demanding to see the prime minister, she was arrested and spent a week on hunger strike.
Career in Malaya and wartime service
O’Flynn joined the Colonial Medical Service in 1913 and was posted to Malaya. She was later described as the first female physician in Malaya, although the appointment of two other women medical officers to Malaya was announced simultaneously and female missionaries were already performing medical work there. Women doctors were still viewed sceptically by some of their colleagues but female patients welcomed them.
She worked in a number of places including Pahang, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. While in Kuala Pilah in 1915, she treated a raja’s wife. The patient’s family was characteristically suspicious of Western medical science and refused to allow life-saving surgery, but were persuaded of its safety after the district officer, Richard Olaf Winstedt (or R. O. Winstedt, as he was better known), showed them his own surgical scars. The surgery went ahead and local midwives came to watch O’Flynn operate. The young woman’s recovery deeply impressed the local people, and the Yang di Pertuan Besar (head of state) of Negeri Sembilan hoped the experience would increase support for two new women’s hospitals in his state. O’Flynn reportedly helped establish one of the first women’s hospitals in Malaya.
Most of her patients were of humbler backgrounds and many lived in remote locations. To reach them, she sometimes cycled as far as 20 miles, walked through jungles and paddy fields and spent nights in kampongs. She operated on kitchen tables and devised a new method of diagnosing ruptured spleens in malaria victims. With her knowledge of the Malay language, she overcame their wariness and was one of the first people to bring modern infant welfare work to the Malayan countryside.
She left Malaya in 1916, the year the War Office appealed for women doctors to help cope with increasing casualties in Europe. Hundreds of women responded, even though they would not be commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps until after World War II. Many, like Winstedt, were sent to Malta, Salonika and Serbia to treat the injured and acquitted themselves with distinction. After the war ended, she travelled to northern Russia on a medical mission in 1919. Back in Singapore in the 1920s, she assisted with the Remembrance Sunday poppy appeal to commemorate fallen soldiers and was elected first president of the Singapore Women’s Branch of the Malaya Ex-Services’ Association.
Career in Singapore
In early 1921, she returned to Malaya to marry R. O. Winstedt and joined the surgical unit of Singapore General Hospital. She was described as one of the government medical service’s most capable surgeons and was praised by Kenneth Black, surgery professor at the King Edward VII Medical College and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, for the unsurpassed skill she demonstrated while helping him perform innumerable difficult operations. In 1929, she was entrusted with attending Governor Hugh Clifford’s gravely ill wife during the latter’s month-long journey to Britain for treatment.
Throughout her time at the hospital, she was also responsible for child patients. They were initially admitted to the women’s ward, but in 1932 the hospital opened Singapore’s first separate paediatric ward with Winstedt as its head. She was later acknowledged as one of the earliest pioneers of paediatrics as a distinct branch of medicine in Singapore.
From 1931, she had to balance her work responsibilities with hosting duties and a busier social schedule after her husband became General Advisor to the State of Johor. Known as Paddy, she was vivacious and had a racy sense of humour that shocked some women but amused men. She retired from Singapore General Hospital in 1933 and wrote a set of primary school textbooks on tropical hygiene. The first volume was praised by the colony’s former principal medical officer as the most practical book of its kind he had read and the textbooks were reprinted as late as 1961. While living in Johor Bahru she voluntarily established the first paediatric unit at its general hospital.
In 1935, the Winstedts returned to Britain and both were awarded King George V’s Silver Jubilee Medal for their public service. Later that year, she was an expert witness in an important English trial, vouching for the merit of a controversial sex manual which became the first non-fiction book in decades to be banned for obscenity. Winstedt joined Hampstead’s Marie Curie Cancer Hospital for women, where she enjoyed being part of an all-female environment, and became assistant director. However this was interrupted during World War II when she served as medical officer in a munitions factory.
The Winstedts were involved with the Malay Society of Great Britain, frequently met Malayan visitors to London, including royalty, and hosted a Malay student in their home.
In 1921 she wed R. O. Winstedt, who went on to become Director of Education, Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States, and later General Advisor to the State of Johor.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Politics and Government>>Health
Winstedt, Sarah Mary Josephine, 1886–1972
Health and medicine>>Medical science>>Medical profession