Christmas in Changi Gaol

Whenever a subject takes my interest, one of the first things I do is take a look at the relevant entries in the wonderful Wellcome Images collection online. Browsing their seasonal images, I came across these hand-painted Christmas cards from 1944. In themselves they are pleasant but nothing special, but two things about them struck me: who received them and where this happened.

Cicely Williams (1893-1992) was born in Kew Park, Westmoreland, Jamaica. Her father’s family had arrived in Jamaica from Glamorgan in the seventeenth century as part of what she described as a ‘brutal and licentious plantocracy’. After being sent to England aged nine to Bath High School for Girls, she was accepted to read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before a hurricane forced her to return to her family in Jamaica.

A shortage of doctors during the First World War meant she was able to gain a visa on condition of studying medicine at Oxford University, where she was one of the first fifty women to gain admission onto a degree course. After passing her final medical examinations in 1923 she worked in women and children’s hospitals in London, when her brother, afraid of scandal, forbade her from adopting an abandoned child for her mother to raise in Jamaica.

She went on to work in pediatrics and maternity and child welfare with refugees in Greece; then for the colonial medical service in the Gold Coast (present day Ghana). There she questioned the regular diagnosis of sick children as suffering from the vitamin deficiency pellagra. From her arrival she was struck by cases of children with swollen bellies and legs and with lighter skin than their parents. She began conducting post-mortems (a risky procedure in the days before antibiotics were available). She turned to local women and found that they called some of these illnesses ‘kwashiorkor’, which she translated as ‘disease of the deposed child’, and came to the conclusion that this was instead an often-fatal protein deficiency caused by a toddler being weaned abruptly upon the arrival of another baby. She used the African name, just as she was happy sending patients to local herbal healers if she could not help. Her challenge to medical orthodoxy was published in journals including The Lancet, but as she said, ‘these men in Harley Street couldn’t believe you unless you wore stripy trousers’.

She was transferred disgraced to Singapore, where she launched a campaign against milk companies, Nestlé in particular. Her ‘Milk and Murder’ campaign began when she learned that some companies were employing women dressed as nurses to enter tenement houses and convince mothers that sweetened condensed milk was ‘ideal for delicate infants’ and preferable to breast milk. Her view on the matter was unforgiving: ‘If your lives were embittered as mine is, by seeing day after day this massacre of the innocents by unsuitable feeding, then I believe you would feel as I do that misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most miserable form of sedition; these deaths should be regarded as murder.’

She was working in Trengganu, in the North-East of Malaya (today part of Malaysia), establishing an integrated preventive and curative maternal and child welfare service when the Japanese entered the war, and was amongst those forced to flee through the Malayan jungle – by river and over mountain – in the hope of finding safety in Singapore. But with Japanese occupation in February 1942 she was interned first in Sime Camp and then along with 6,000 prisoners of war in Changi Gaol.

Starving Australian POWs (middle) in Changi Gaol (right), where Dr Cicely Williams (left) spent most of the Second World War
Dr Ciceley Williams (left) spent most of the Second World War with starving Australian POWs (middle) in Changi Gaol (right)

She was appointed dietician, but this relatively privileged position came to an end in October 1943 when she was arrested by military police on suspicion of espionage. She was then taken to the headquarters of the Tempe Kai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo. There are conflicting claims as to whether or not she was tortured like the men, but she was  certainly confined in cages with dying men for nearly six months.

Both her and the only other female prisoner, Freddy Bloom, were malnourished and developed beriberi. This caused Freddy’s legs to swell until her trousers ripped and she was wrapped in Cicely’s sarong. After this she returned to Changi, emaciated and with her red hair turned white. She spent the rest of the war in Changi, where she received these hand-painted Christmas cards from a fellow prisoner of war in 1944.

When the war was won in Europe, she was hospitalised and said to be near death – suffering from dysentery and the beriberi that left her feet numb for the rest of her life. A year later, however, she produced a report on the nutritional conditions for women and children in the civilian camp, in which she noted: ’20 babies were born, 20 babies were breastfed, 20 babies survived, you can’t do better than that’. When the World Health Organization was founded in 1948, she was appointed the first head of its maternal and child welfare section. And she continued to work in the field of nutrition, even long after she retired in 1978.

You can browse my favourite of the Christmas-themed Wellcome images here.

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