Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Days When Singapore Panicked - Part 1

On the morning of Monday 7 September 1959 I found two excited police officers waiting for me in the Government Department of Chemistry where I worked. They informed me that there were eight deaths involving children and 31 others had been admitted to the General Hospital on Sunday 6 September 1959. The affected families were 22 from the Queenstown-Alexandra area, three from Victoria Street, 2 from Silat Road and one each from the old Kallang Airport area, Lavender Street, Geyland and Braddell Road. The territorial spread was quite wide. The children’s ages ranged from 4 months to 16 years old.

It was obvious the children must have taken some kind of poison or toxin, but nobody knew what these were or where they came from. Understandably the families were too distraught to say much to the police or the press. There was not much of a lead we could follow. I had to assume that the cause of death must have come from the food they took. I requested the police to find out what food they had taken and we would try to put the pieces together and start from there. Three families said that their children had taken some home made barley drinks besides other kinds of food. That was the only common lead we had to work on. Our job was to identify the source of poisoning as soon as possible to prevent further deaths. To be sure we must isolate and confirm the poison/s responsible. This was not easy under the circumstances. If it is botulism or toxin it is outside the scope of the chemists to detect these toxins. The other common poisonous chemicals like cyanides, arsenic, carbon monoxide or some alkaloids were not considered as likely candidates. Our only clue was that the children could have been killed by the barley drinks. Ridiculous and far fetch this suggestion might be we had to make some kind of statement to calm the public.

The ministries of Health and National Development were in constant contact with us throughout the day to find out whether we had found anything. I felt the pressure to get results. Unfortunately even my director could not give me any advice on what to do. I had to use my initiative and judgment on how best to proceed. I had a new chemist Mr. Theng Chye Yam and two laboratory assistants,the late Mr. Pwee Sai Cheow and Mr. Ng Hon Wing to assist in the extraction of the possible poison/s from the various types of food that the police had collected . We also had the stomachs of the deceased children and several stomach washouts from those who were still in hospital. I decided to work on some 15 samples of food rounded up from the families. By then it was already well passed lunch time. We informed the Ministries that barley appeared to be a possible source of poisoning although we did not know for sure how the poison could have been associated with such a common and harmless drink like barley. Under the circumstances the Government accepted our postulation (absurd as this may seem at the time) and issued a general statement warning the public to stay away from barley until the investigation was completed. Our responsibility was a heavy one. Under the circumstances we were expected to say something and we have to make a calculated guess. What if we were wrong? This was a terrible thought I dared not even entertain. I was a young chemist, my image could be affected and that of the new PAP self Government too. I realized that I had to pull out everything I had to provide the answers whatever happened. Many eyes were focused on me and I must not fail. Brave words but how was I to do what had to be done?

At that point in time I did not know how long it would take to pin point the source of poison and confirm what it was. I was not even certain that the poison/s could be found or be identified from the samples we had. Because of the announcement many who had taken some barley sought admissions into hospitals .They had their stomachs washout and we in the laboratory were flooded with such samples. Such panic response was not unexpected. They did not however help in our investigation.

Amidst this confusion and excitement I was at a loss of where to start and the pressure to produce results was very great. I knew that normal chemical investigation and identification of unknowns like this would take a long time. We may not even have any results at the end of it all. I went home that day at 10.00 pm , exhausted.

The nest day I decided to use white mice for the test on the 15 extracts where the poison could possibly be found. This was not a normal way a chemist work. I was never thought to be an orthodox person anyway. I had very few choices and the pressure to produce results was great. Professor Shumagaratnam of the Department of Pathology provided me with some white mice. I injected one mouse and it died instantly. Hurrah,! I exclaimed, only to be told that the mouse may have died due to trauma caused by me in injecting it. I then injected the extracts into numerous small pieces of cheese and fed them to the mice. It must have been common sense that made me do what I did. Luck was with me. After a few minutes one of the mice dropped dead. I repeated the experiment and obtained the same results on another mouse. Eureka, I shouted. The poison that killed the mice was from a barley extract.! We had not misled the Government, and the Government had not misled the people by their announcements. That released part of the pressure I had the day before.

I still did not know what to look for in that particular extract. I talked to the late Dr. Quah Quee Guan, Head of the East Pediatric Unit of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

She told me that certain muscular activities of the patients were affected which responded to atropine injections. This indicated that the poison, whatever it was, exhibited an anti-cholinesterase reaction to produce the observed symptoms.

It was already 7 pm on Tuesday 8th September 1959. . I was the only one left in the Department. I called the late Professor Robert Lin, Head of the Department of Pharmacology of the University. He was happy to assist me to check on anti-cholinesterase activity using a rabbit aorta, a standard experiment for medical students. By 9.00 pm we confirmed that the extract from the barely contained this poison which could have caused the death of the children.

What poison could this be ? I had to make a guess again. There were many possibilities. I chose to zero in on Florinated organo-phosphate insecticides. The insecticides, which Singapore imported in those days such as marathione, were not known to be that poisonous unless taken in large quantities. I decided to look for Parathione although I was not sure how this could have got into the barley. Furthermore Parathione was banned in Singapore then. Nevertheless I proceeded through the night and confirmed the presence of Parathione in the barley extracts by chemical methods on the morning of 9th September. An announcement was immediately made that the “killer’ has been found at 10.00 a.m. on Wednesday 9th September . The public anxiety which had been raised to a frenzy had at least been partially settled with this confirmation. I felt very good and much relieved but the stress and the fumes from parathione knocked me out for a few days after that.

I worked on the stomachs of the children, and confirmed the presence of Parathione .

After that I left the testing of the other extracts from the remaining food to Mr. Theng and my two other laboratory assistants. As I expected they got negative results from the more than 40 samples of other food taken from the families. This confirmed that we had not missed anything out.

After that the important issue to be settled quickly was how to control the barley containing the killer from being consumed and killing more people. Some suggested destroying all barley stock then available in Singapore. This was a panic measure which we advised against as it would cost the traders a lot of money. How then were we supposed to handle the situation? Who would be made responsible should we make a mistake? What if more people die? This was one time when I really felt the responsibility of my work and its pressure. We managed to solve it in record time by shear good luck and with the cooperation of some many kind people. I could not have solved the problem using pure chemistry alone. I learned many lessons from this experience and how to make my I.Q, E.Q. and A.Q. work together to achieve what we have to achieve.

The Government kept on announcing through the various media not to take barley until further investigations were completed. That was sufficient to stop people from buying and taking barley.

In the meanwhile working with the police, we rounded several samples of barley from shops in the affected areas. We noticed that only barley bearing certain markings on their gunny bags was found to contain the insecticide. Some bags were badly soaked with the insecticide. It was then obvious that only a certain batch of barley was the culprit. We recommended all remaining barley from that particular consignment be rounded up and destroyed. There was no resistance or negative response from the public on this issue.

What happened in Singapore also affected the Federation of Malaya. Several Federal Government health statements were reported by all State Health Departments. They also advised their public not to consume barley in any form until investigations are completed. Kuala Lumpur also reported 4 supposedly barley poison cases.

The question still remained to be answered was “ How did the poison get into the barley ?”

Who should be responsible for the deaths of our children? Please see Part Two on this series.

Lee Kum Tatt


joenazir said...

The lab asssitant mentioned, the late Mr. Pwee Sai Cheow is my father-in-law. Btw, his middle name should be spelt SYE instead of SAI.

Lee said...

Thank you for your comment.
We have high respect for Mr. Pwee's technical capabilities. After his retirement from Dept of Chemistry he joined me at SISIR until 1971. Mr. Pwee has contributed a lot to the Department of Chemistry.