Google pays tribute to Malaysian epidemiologist Dr Wu Lien-teh, inventor of the surgical mask

KUALA LUMPUR, March 10 — Google Doodle today honoured the late Malaysian-Chinese epidemiologist Dr Wu Lien-teh, who invented the surgical face mask, on his 142nd birthday today.

Dr Wu, who was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Penang in 1879 on this day, went on to become the first student of ethnic Chinese descent to earn his medical degree from Cambridge University.

Dr Wu, a staunch advocate of medical advancement, is also Malaysia’s first Nobel Prize nominee in 1935.

He was at that time nominated for the prestigious award in Physiology or Medicine for his work to control the pneumonic plague.

This was after Dr Wu’s work in China, following his appointment to investigate an unknown epidemic at that time, which had affected north-western China. He later identified the disease to be a highly contagious pneumonic plague which had human to human respiratory transmission.

This discovery led Dr Wu to design and produce a special surgical mask with cotton and gauze, adding several layers of cloth to filter inhalations.

He had also advised people to wear his new invention and worked with government officials to establish quarantine stations and hospitals, restrict travel and apply progressive sterilisation techniques. Dr Wu’s work helped to end the pandemic, known as the Manchurian plague, by April 1911, merely four months after taking the task to address the outbreak.

Google also shared thoughts from Dr Wu’s great-granddaughter, Dr Shan Woo Liu, on the Doodle homage.

“We are honoured that Google is celebrating our great-grandfather’s birthday. Just over a century ago, he helped fight off a plague in China and developed techniques such as mask-wearing, that we still use today in our battle against Covid-19.

“Growing up, we heard our father’s stories about our great-grandfather — that he was famous for controlling the Manchurian pneumonic plague, a disease that was deadly for nearly everyone who contracted it, and that he held a position in China equivalent to Surgeon General in the US. A book on our coffee table with a tattered cover, Plague Fighter, reminded us daily of his achievements.

“His story stirred something in me, and from an early age, I dreamed of becoming a doctor. Yet it wasn’t until 1995, when I attended the 80th anniversary celebration of his founding of the Chinese Medical Association, that I truly appreciated his legacy,” she said, adding that hundreds of doctors and scientists crowded a Shanghai conference room to hear lectures about Dr Wu’s life and career.

Dr Shan said that she also learnt that her great-grandfather was also considered by many to be the father of modern medicine in China.

“In 2018, I travelled with my family to Harbin, in Northeast China, to visit a museum and research institute built in my great grandfather’s honour. It was humbling to walk in his footsteps in the very same city where he suppressed the plague outbreak a century earlier. Today, as an emergency physician treating Covid-19 patients, I appreciate his bravery all the more.

“A year ago, I was terrified by how little we knew about the coronavirus. Even now, I struggle to imagine how my great-grandfather must have felt as he cared for patients who had contracted the plague. But I also feel closer to him than ever as I urge my patients to practice social distancing and to wear a mask — the very techniques he pioneered as he rescued China, and possibly the world, from a scourge. Wu Lien-teh remains as much of a hero now as he was then,” she added.



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