Dr. Wu Lien-teh (1879 – 1960), who’s also known as Goh Lean Tuck and Ng Leen Tuck, was a Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist who may not be a known name to many of us, but he’s responsible for saving lives on 2020 – as the inventor of the surgical face mask which is widely considered the precursor to the N95 mask.
However, the invention of the surgical mask wasn’t his only achievement – his life story is an inspiring one.
First Chinese-descent student at Cambridge University
Wu was the first student of Chinese descent – his dad was from Taishan and his mother was Peranakan – who earned his MD from Cambridge University. Born in Penang, he was admitted to Cambridge’s Emmanuel College in 1896 after winning the Queen’s Scholarship, which was only awarded to top male students in (then) British Malaya and Singapore to further their studies in the UK.
While at university, he won virtually all the available prizes and scholarships before spending his undergraduate clinical years at St Mary’s Hospital, London. He then continued on to Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the Pasteur Institute, and Halle University where he honed his skills in epidemiology.
Created the precursor to the N95 surgical mask
Wu moved to China in 1907 and became vice director for China’s Imperial Army Medical College in 1908, based in Tianjin. He was appointed to investigate an unknown disease that killed 99.9% of its victims in northeastern China in 1910 – it was subsequently known as the Manchurian plague that killed 60,000 people.
Having identified it as a highly contagious pneumonic plague that spread from human to human by air, Wu designed and produced a special surgical mask with cotton and gauze and added layers of cloth to filter inhalations. The design is widely acknowledged to be the precursor to the N95 mask.
Wu advised people to wear the masks to protect themselves from the airborne virus – one prominent French doctor who refused to wear a mask died days later of the plague.
Stopped the spread of the Manchurian plague in China
In addition to mandating mask-wearing, Wu worked with the government to to initiate quarantine protocols and restrict travel – all the things we’re currently doing to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Within four months of Wu’s leadership, the spread of the Manchurian plague ended in April 1911.
First Malaysian and person of Chinese descent nominated for Nobel Prize
In 1935, he was the first Malaysian as well as the first person of Chinese descent who’s nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work to control the pneumonic plague and for identifying the role of tarbagan marmots in the transmission of the disease.
Practised medicine until he was 80
Wu moved back to Malaya in 1939 and continued to work as a general practitioner in Ipoh until his death at age 81. He died of a stroke on 21 January 1960 while in his home in Penang.
Before his death, he wrote a 667-page autobiography, Plague Fighter, the Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician. His daughter, Dr. Yu-lin Wu, published a book about her father, Memories of Dr. Wu Lien-teh, Plague Fighter in 1995. The Times London commented on January 27, 1960: “By his death, the world of medicine has lost a heroic and almost legendary figure and the world at large one of whom it is far more indebted to than it knows.”
Wu was known as the “plague fighter” and held in high esteem as the “Father of modern medicine in China”. A devoted advocate and practitioner of medical advancement, Wu’s efforts not only changed public health in China but that of the entire world. His work in the field of epidemiology has helped us understand COVID-19 (and other pandemics before it) – more than 100 years after his death.