Google Doodle honours Penangite Dr Wu Lien-Teh who invented surgical mask to fight pandemic

He created a surgical face covering widely believed to be the precursor of today's N95 mask.

Google Doodle's homage of the late Malaysian-Chinese epidemiologist Dr Wu Lien-Teh (Photo: Google Doodle)

Malaysia had its fair share of Google Doodle tributes, including singer-actor Saloma and Sybil Kathigasu, a freedom fighter during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Today, Google has dedicated its Malaysian homepage to the late Malaysian-Chinese epidemiologist Dr Wu Lien-Teh on his 142nd birthday. 

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Penang in 1879, Dr Wu was known for inventing the surgical face mask widely believed to be the precursor of today’s N95 mask. He also became the first student of Chinese descent to earn his MD from Cambridge University, according to Google in its tribute.

A staunch advocate of medical advancement, Dr Wu is Malaysia’s first Nobel Prize nominee in 1935. He was then nominated for the prestigious award in Physiology or Medicine for his work to control the pneumonic plague that spread from human to human through respiratory transmission.

After investigating an unknown epidemic, and found it to be a highly contagious pneumonic plague, Dr Wu started producing special surgical mask with cotton and gauze, adding several layers of cloth to filter inhalations. 

Not only Dr Wu advised people to wear his invention, he also worked with government officials to establish quarantine stations and hospitals, restrict travel and apply progressive sterilisation techniques. He played a huge part in ending the pandemic — also known as the Manchurian plague — by April 1911, merely four months after addressing the outbreak. 


Dr Wu is Malaysia’s first Nobel Prize nominee in 1935

Google also reached out to Dr Wu’s great-granddaughter Dr Shan Woo Liu, who shared her thoughts on the homage.

“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.

"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."

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