Founded by the people for the people: A future build on the foundation of the past.

December 20, 2016 | By Toni Calliva

2016 was a milestone year for the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’s (RCWMCH) in Cape Town, South Africa as they celebrated their 60th anniversary. The history of the hospital goes back to the Second World War when a group of South African soldiers of all races resolved that when they returned home they would create a place of healing in honour of their fallen comrades.


The idea of a Children’s Hospital as a Red Cross War Memorial, was proposed by members of the ‘Western Province’ Regiment who were, at the time, serving in the 6th Armoured South African Division in Italy. The 6th SA Armoured Division was one of the most versatile and experienced fighting formations amongst the Allied forces in Italy.

The concept was first suggested at the Annual General Meeting of the Cape Region of the South African Red Cross Society in May, 1945. At this time a tortured world was emerging from the titanic struggle of the Second World War. The proposal to commemorate those who had contributed by sacrifice, suffering or service, to the Allied victory, by building a worthy memorial received immediate and widespread encouragement.

The acute shortage of accommodation for children in the existing Cape Peninsula hospitals was being stressed by the medical profession, and the lack of a hospital devoted solely to children was emphasised.

It was felt that as children the world over had been innocent victims of and sufferers of the War, this form of memorial would be most appropriate. 

There could be no more inspiring or useful memorial to all who made sacrifices for their country.

The Cape Red Cross was proud to be directly associated with a children’s hospital as a living Red Cross war memorial and the Children’s Hospital Committee planned to build a hospital according to the most modern standards. It called on the advice of medical, nursing and technical experts and its Architects were advised by Professor Moncrieff of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. A preliminary sketch of the south front of the proposed hospital appeared in The Cape Argus on the 20th April 1948.

The project was approved and an appeal for funds was launched.

The cost of the fully equipped hospital at completion was £700 000. The hospital was opened at 8:45am on Monday, 18th June 1956 at a dedication service. The Provincial Administrator, in officially taking over the hospital on behalf of the CPA from the Cape Red Cross, spoke on the theme ‘on the ruins of the past do we build the future.’


The public gave generously to the original fund as contributions came in pennies from the poor, to thousands of pounds given by wealthy individuals or organisations. The Cape Argus wrote “It is thus a hospital belonging to the people and paid for by the people. A fitting memorial in every sense.”

The Cape Times reported, ‘Just over 8 years ago the Cape branch of the Red Cross started a campaign to create one of the finest war memorials that could have been imagined – a children’s hospital. Yesterday the Governor-General laid the foundation stone which marked the step towards the final realisation of the magnificent idea that the happiest way to commemorate those who were sacrificed in the war was to help save the lives and ease the pain of children.’

The first patients admitted on Friday the 15th June 1956 were 15 convalescent children with polio.

There were six senior medical officers and 25 specialists along with a nursing staff of 11 sisters, 17 staff nurses, 30 student nurses and 22 nursing assistants. The sisters wore specially designed caps instead of the traditional veils, to stop small clutching hands from pulling them off.


For the last 60 years the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa has pioneered world class healthcare for seriously ill children regardless of race, colour or creed. It has accomplished many firsts in paediatric surgery and health care, including the first successful intubation on a neonate, which was the onset of critical care globally.  Children from all over the world would come to Cape Town to have heart defects fixed by the highly skilled team under Professor Chris Barnard who conducted the first open-heart surgery on a child in South Africa.


It saw the first separation of conjoined-twins, conducted in South Africa in the 1960’s along with the establishment of the first dedicated children’s cancer service in South Africa. The 1980’s ushered in the development of the first, and still only, dedicated paediatric neurosurgical unit as well as the first and only dedicated paediatric trauma unit in the country.

Not only does the Hospital provide world-class treatment to seriously ill children, but also carries out specialised medical training both locally and internationally, and conducts ground-breaking research with global impact on childhood illnesses.

The generosity and spirit by the WWII servicemen created a legacy for future generations of sick children, and a lasting memorial to all the South African soldiers who lost their lives.

The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is an outstanding example in practical remembrance and has come to be recognised as one of the top Children’s Hospitals in the world.

South Africa’s former President, the late Nelson Mandela said “It is known throughout the world as a centre of excellence for pioneering research and treatment of childhood diseases and as a premier centre of specialist paediatric training in Africa. Though located in Cape Town, it has become a national and international resource.”