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  • Melinda Murphy

Malaysian doctor helped stopped a pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the extraordinary work of a Malaysian doctor who stopped a pneumonic plague so bad it was dubbed "apocalyptic" because it killed 100% of those infected in 1910.

However, chances are that you have never heard of the doctor's name.

His name is Wu Lien-teh and he was born in Penang on 10 March 1879. At the age of 15, Wu moved to London to study at the Emmanuel College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in 1894. He became the first ethnic Chinese to study medicine there. In 1903, he finished his medical studies and joined the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur as the first research student. A year later, he started his private practice in Chulia Street, George Town. In the fall of 1910, Wu was called to China by the Chinese Imperial Court to lead its scientific efforts to stop a deadly pneumonic epidemic that affected Manchuria in Northeast Asia and killed 60,000 people. Within a few months, the Penangite stopped the deadly plague.

For his work, Wu was given the name of the "Plague Fighter"

Called the Manchurian plague, which occurred more than a century ago, it has been described as "apocalyptic" by Christos Lynteris, a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews, a public university in Scotland. "It kills 100% of those infected, no one survives. And it kills them within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms. No one has come across something like this in modern times, and it is similar to the descriptions of Black Death," Lynteris was recently quoted by Mark Wilson of Fast Company. Now, as the countries around the world try to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple international media outlets have noted how the world came together in response to the deadly plague at the time.

How did he stop the plague? Contrary to belief at the time that fleas were responsible for it, Wu determined that the plague was actually spread through the air after he conducted an autopsy on one of the victims. "This was contrary to the general idea that plague could only be transmitted by rats or fleas and could not be transmitted from person to person. His idea surprised all of his scientific peers and was met with widespread disbelief," according to a paper published in the United States National Library of Medicine. Following which, he initiated a quarantine and arranged for buildings to be disinfected. He also asked the bodies of the plague victims to be cremated, which turned out to be the turning point of the epidemic. By 31 March 1911, merely days after cremations began, no further infection was reported.

However, Dr Wu's most crucial breakthrough came when he developed a face mask to filter the air. It was the original version of the N95 mask. He expanded on surgical masks he had seen in the West, developing them into more substantial masks with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air through its several layers of cloth. The mask wrapped securely around one's face. Some doctors, however, still doubted the effectiveness of Dr Wu's face masks, with one such doctor dying of the plague after refusing to wear the mask. According to the National Library of Medicine paper, his name was Gérald Mesny. He was a prominent French doctor who had come to replace Dr Wu. He doubted Dr Wu's views and refused to wear the mask. "Wu explains to the French doctor his theory that the plague is pneumonic and airborne. And the French guy humiliates him. And to prove this point, Mesny goes and attends the sick in a plague hospital without wearing Wu's mask, and he dies in two days with the plague," Lynteris told Fast Company.

By 1921, Dr Wu successfully stamped out the recurring epidemic and in 1935, he became the first Malaysian to be nominated for a Nobel Prize Well regarded as an infectious diseases expert, he, however, did not win the prestigious award. He moved back to Malaysia in 1937, following the commencement of the anti-Japanese war in China. His wife and three of his sons had died in China and his home and collection of ancient Chinese medical books were burnt, according to a 1960 obituary published in The Lancet. Dr Wu settled in Ipoh, where he opened a general practice. He died at the age of 81 on 21 January 1960.

While Dr Wu has received many accolades and there are multiple roads and statues named after him, the Malaysian hero's name, however, has never found a place in our school history textbooks.

Today as Malaysia, Singapore, China with over 200 countries are trying to contain the COVID-19 virus, his efforts to eradicate the plague over a century ago become even more relevant. Dr Wu's contributions to the development of modern medicine in China were so great that he is regarded as the first person to modernise China's medical services and medical education. His work, in fact, continues to be used even after 100 years. According to SCMP, records of his containment efforts – found today at the library of the National University of Singapore (NUS) – were utilised when SARS suddenly broke out in 2003. However, the Penangite, who is renowned in China for his work, hasn't found a place in our history books.

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