Martin Singer: 1921–2015

08 July 2015

1921 – 8 July 2015

Alumnus Dr Martin Singer (94), a world-renowned UCT hand surgeon, died on 8 July.

In 2004 Singer, after whom The Martin Singer Hand Clinic at Groote Schuur Hosiptal was named, became the first South African and African to receive the Pioneer of Hand Surgery award, presented by the International Federation of Societies for Surgery of the Hand.

Hand injuries, especially work-related, are some of the most commonly treated in emergency rooms. Anatomically, the hand is one of the most intricate and complex parts of the body.

Singer was a dyed-in-the-wool UCT alumnus; he graduated MBChB in 1944 with first-class honours.

After the war, he went to the United Kingdom, keen to become a paediatric surgeon. But after advice from his brother he applied to the Royal National Orthopaedics Hospital in Middlesex.

Singer described it as"a sleepy country hospital" where he thought there would be time for study. But (Sir) Herbert Seddon took over, revolutionising the facility and attracting surgeons from all over the world.

Singer trained with luminaries like Jackson Burrows, a pioneer in limb salvage, and David Trevor, a world authority on congenital dislocation of the hip.

In 1951 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (England). He returned to South Africa in 1956 and after going into private practice, also worked at many of the province's hospitals, including the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy School and the Maitland Cottage Home, where he was surgeon for 25 years and afterwards honorary superintendent.

Forming the hand unit was a hard-fought battle. The notion of a hand unit outside the orthopaedic unit was unpopular. To do so, Singer resigned from orthopaedic surgery and joined the general surgery department.

GSH was the first hospital in the country to have a dedicated hand unit, albeit a humble affair behind a screen in the old trauma unit. The team worked without even rudimentary equipment. That he later invited plastic surgeons to be part of the team was part of his inherent visionary approach to hand surgery.

And once the microvascular laboratory was established in the surgery division, Singer made it mandatory for all hand registrars to train in microvascular techniques at least once a week during their six-month stay.

Under Singer's guidance, the hand clinic introduced a number of firsts: the first hand replants in South Africa; a congenital hand clinic at the Red Cross; and the first Brachia Plexus injury clinic.

There were other innovations attached to Singer's name: the introduction of a cast bracing technique at GSH in 1981 to shorten hospital stay after femoral and tibial plateau fractures; a "hot box" therapy to manage hand patients in an atmosphere of dry heat to prevent spasms; and stockinette sleeve dressings enabling patients to move their hands straight after surgery.

Singer served as president of both the South African Society for Surgery of the Hand (1973 to 1975), and the South African Orthopaedic Association (1977 to 1979).

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.