Dr Wu Lien-Teh, The Chinese Who Discovered Masks

Since November 2019, the world’s resilience has been tested due to the corona-virus infection-led pandemic. In these times, masks, which were earlier used by medical professionals only, have become a part of every human’s life across the globe. Masks were first discovered a century ago, yes, in 1910, a large pneumonic plague epidemic killed 60,000 and Dr. Wu Lien Teh at that time developed surgical marks with layers of gauze and cotton.
Dr. Wu Lien-Teh, The Chinese Who Discovered Masks
Dr. Wu Lien-Teh, The Chinese Who Discovered Masks

Who was Dr. Wu Lien Teh?

Born on 10th March 1879, Wu Lien Teh was Penang, one of the three towns of the Straits Settlements colonies of the United kingdom, currently as one of the states of Malaysia. His goldsmith father immigrated from Taishan, China and her mother’s family also originated from China.

He was the first person from the Malayan community to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1935.

He started his educational journey from Penang Free school and went ahead to be a admitted at Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1896, after winning the Queen's Scholarship. He was the first medical student of Malayan descent to study at the University of Cambridge who eventually became known for his work in public health, particularly the Manchurian plague of 1910–11.

He savoured a successful career at university and won almost every prize and scholarship. He went ahead to spend his undergraduate clinical years at St Mary’s Hospital, London. He continued his tudies atLiverpool School of Tropical Medicine (under Sir Ronald Ross), the Pasteur Institute, Halle University, and the Selangor Institute.[3]

What happened to Dr Wu Lien The’s family?

In 1903, Wu went back to Straits Settlements and married Ruth Shu-chiung Huang. Wu Lien The wife’s sister was married to a physician who promoted social and educational reforms in Singapore, Lim Boon Keng and was daughter of Wong Nai Siong, a Chinese revolutionary leader and educator who had moved to the area from 1901 to 1906.

In 1907, his family and Wu moved to China and wu’s wife and two of their three sons died. Wu remarried and became father to four more children.

Dr. Wu lien Teh Face Mask and Pneumonic Plague

In winter of 1910, a disease was responsible to take lives of 99.9% of its victims, Wu was sent to investigate the Foreign Office of the Imperial Qing court in Peking, to Harbin to investigate an unknown disease.

This was the beginning of the large pneumonic plague epidemic of Manchuria and Mongolia, which ultimately claimed 60,000 lives. Wu engaged in postmortems which was usually not accepted in China of Japanese Women who had died of the plague.

The autopsy results showcased plague was spreading by air and that is when, Wu developed sustainable surgical masks which had layers of cotton and gauze to filter the air. A prominent Frenchg doctor who came to replace Wu died of the plague after refusing to wear the mask.

The Wu’s design masks were widely produced and 60,000 masks distributed in later epidemic which featured in press images at that time.

Today, N95 mask is believed to descendant of Wu's design.

Wu’s steps in 1910 to curb the Manchurian epidemic:

Wu initiated a quarantine, arranged for buildings to be disinfected, and the old plague hospital to be burned down and replaced. While asking for imperial sanction to cremate plague victims was a measure he requested for, it was impossible to bury the dead because the ground was frozen.

Hence, bodies were disposed of by soaking them in paraffin and burning them on pyres. Cremation of these infected victims turned out to be the turning point of the epidemic which eventually led to decline and eradication of plague.

Wu's Commemoration:

At 80, Wu had completed his 667-page autobiography, Plague Fighter, the Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician. After his death in 1960, he has been commemorated with road named after him in Ipoh Garden South.

In Penang, near his alma matar school, Penang free School, a residential area named Taman Wu Lien Teh is located which In that school, a house has been named after him. There is also a Dr. Wu Lien-teh Society, Penang.

20,000 books under the Wu Lien-teh Collection were given by Wu to the Nanyang University, which later became part of the National University of Singapore.

The Art Museum of the University of Malaya has a collection of his paintings.

Wu's daughter, Dr. Yu-lin Wu, published a book about her father, Memories of Dr. Wu Lien-teh, Plague Fighter in 1995.

2 decades later, in 2015, the Wu Lien-Teh Institute opened at Harbin Medical University. The first person to modernise China's medical services and medical education, Wu’s bronze statues in Harbin Medical University were placed to commemorate his contributions to public health, preventive medicine, and medical education.

Wu Lien Teh’s work in the field of epidemiology was founded relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic. His medical and scientific descendants were connected via video confernerce in May 2020 by Dr. Yvonne Ho.

In July 2020, some of these medical and scientific descendants collaborated to publish an article to memorialize Dr. Wu's lifetime work in public health followed by a second group of Wu's medical and scientific descendants in August 2020. March 2021 became a year when Wu was honoured with a Google Doodle. The doodle depicted Wu assembling surgical masks and distributing them to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

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