Dr Wu Lien-teh: Face mask pioneer who helped defeat a plague epidemic

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Today’s Google doodle celebrates Wu Lien-teh, an epidemiologist who pioneered the use of face masks to control an epidemic over a century before the advent of covid-19.

Born in Penang, Malaysia, on this day in 1879 and educated in the UK, Wu was recruited to work on a deadly disease outbreak in northeastern China in December 1910. The first people to be affected were marmot trappers and fur traders, part of a flourishing trade in marmot pelts in the region.

From a postmortem examination – the first performed in China – Wu succeeded in isolating and culturing the bacterium responsible for the disease, identifying it as Yersinia pestis, which was known from with earlier bubonic plague epidemics.

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Wu understood that the disease could be spread by respiratory droplets, and was not just caught from rats or fleas as many believed at the time.

Wu produced a mask made from cotton and gauze, with extra layers of cloth and more secure ties to improve on previous designs. He encouraged medical staff and others to wear it to protect themselves, the first time widespread mask use had been part of an epidemic control strategy. It was met with some resistance, however: a French colleague died of the plague after refusing to wear a mask.

Wu advised authorities to impose restrictions on movement, including stopping trains, to limit the spread of the disease, and instruct sick people to self-isolate. He also persuaded officials to sanction the cremation of dead bodies, which was not normally accepted in China.

The last case of the disease was recorded in March 1911. It came to be known as the Manchurian plague, and it killed an estimated 60,000 people.

Wu chaired an international conference on the plague that year, helping disseminate knowledge about how to respond to outbreaks. The epidemic helped to convince China’s leaders of the need for a modern public health service, and Wu help establish it in numerous roles before returning to Malaysia in 1937.

 

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