The forgotten history of Travelling Dispensary No. 2 in Sarawak

Since its introduction in 1973, the Flying Doctor Service has been providing basic health services to at least 37,000 patients annually in Sarawak‘s rural area.

The team usually comprises a medical officer, an assistant medical officer and two community nurses.

Covering at least 116 remote locations, these helicopters fly out from Kuching, Sibu and Miri.

Before the existence of the Flying Doctor Service, there was travelling dispensary which used boats to reach out to rural patients.

If you never heard of them, here are five things to know about the history of Sarawak Travelling Dispensary No. 2:

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1.Why is it No. 2, not No. 1?

Well, the Travelling Dispensary No. 2 was based in Samarahan and was the second floating dispensary built by the Sarawak Medical Department.

According to former senior hospital assistant Austin L Reggie, travelling dispensary no. 2 was under the charge of a travelling hospital assistant.

Writing for the Sarawak Gazette on June 7, 1949, Reggie pointed out the areas where the travelling dispensary no. 2 had visited.

“Since the beginning of June 1948, the dispensary has been paying weekly visits to the following places; Goebilt, Muara Tebas, Sambir, Tembirat, Beliong, Tambai, Kampung Baru, Muara Tuang, Kampung Melayu, Tanah Mirah, Segenam, Kanawit, Panchor, Sejingkat, Sebayor and Merdang.

“The Dispensary also visits Bako, Buntal and Santubong every fortnight since February, 1949.

“In March, it made up a trip to upriver villages, calling at Kampung Segedup, Batu Kawa, Rantau Panjang, Batu Kitang, Landeh and Siniawan.”

2.Travelling Dispensary No.1

Travelling Dispensary No. 1 was first started in Sibu in March 1948. The first area it visited was along the Igan river.

Since it was the first of its kind, many came to call it the Travelling Dispensary No.1. Manned by a hospital assistant, an attendant and a boat driver, it did not only serve as a mobile outpatient clinic but also as a river ambulance.

The staff attended to 3,792 patients in the first nine months of the mobile dispensary’s operation.

By 1949, the number of patients had increased to 13, 893.

3.Working on Sarawak Travelling Dispensary No. 2

“Although independent, the life of a travelling hospital assistant is not a rosy one, as some people may suppose it to be; for he is always kept busy administering to the sick during his travels,” Reggie stated.

He often skipped his lunch because he had no time to take it.

When he had attended to all of his patients at one village, he must leave and go to the next where there may be another big batch of sick persons waiting for treatment.

If there were any cases which were beyond his scope of knowledge, he either advised them to go to General Hospital for treatment or brought them using his boat.

Reggie explained, “The treatment is sometimes carried out on board the dispensary and sometimes in one of the kampung houses selected for the purpose by the headmen, especially when women and children present the greater percentage of cases.

The villagers are always willing to help in carrying the boxes of drugs, etc., to and from the dispensary when they are asked to do so.”

4.The villagers’ response

The villagers were well aware of the travelling dispensary’s schedule.

According to Reggie, they called them ‘perahu obat’. They even recognised the sound of the 22-horse-power engine of their boat.

“As soon as they hear the familiar sound of the machine they will come running down to the landing stage with bottles or other containers either for mixtures or ointments in their hands – some carrying sick children or other relatives on their backs for examination and treatment. Those who live on the opposite side of the river and those living some distance away where there are no roads, will come over by boats.”

5.The early effectiveness of Travelling Dispensary No. 2

Since its inception in June 1948 to the end of April 1949, the Travelling Dispensary No.2 had treated 15,498 Malay and Dayak as well as 4,506 Chinese patients.

Within that short period of time, the team successfully reduced the number of scabies, ulcers, ringworm problems and malaria cases in the Samarahan district.

With that, the department looked into having more boats and engaging more medical assistants.

According to an official record, at the end of 1967 there were 43 static and 14 travelling dispensaries serving in Sarawak.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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