Maybe not many Malaysians are unaware that the N95 mask we are using now, especially by the medical frontliners fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is actually the idea and the product of a Malaysian doctor. The N95 mask designed by a Malaysian doctor is highly sought after around the globe. You might not have heard his name before, but he is Dr Wu Lien Teh.
The N95 mask is designed by Dr Wu Lien Teh, born in Penang
Dr Wu Lien Teh was born in Penang in 1879. It was his original idea to design the N95 mask that we are using now. At the age of 15, Dr Wu Lien Teh moved to London to study at the Emmanuel College – a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in 1894. He is in fact, became the first ethnic Chinese to study medicine at the majestic college. He was highly regarded for his medical knowledge and for his contribution in the medical field. He was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1935.
Later in 1903, he then joined the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur as the first research student after finishing his medical studies. He then started his private practice in Chulia Street, George Town.
Dr Wu Lien Teh was called to China to stop a deadly pneumonic epidemic
In 1910, he was called to China by the Chinese Imperial Court to lead its scientific efforts to stop a deadly pneumonic epidemic. The deadly plague affected Manchuria and killed 60,000 people. It was apocalyptic and it killed 100% of those affected within 24 to 48 hours of developing symptoms.
He was known as the “Plague Fighter”
Dr Wu managed to stop the deadly plague within a few months. It was after he conducted an autopsy on one of the victims to understand how the plague worked. Through this, he found that the epidemic was caused by a pneumonic plague that is transmitted by bodily fluids – it was spread through the air, not by fleas as many believed then.
People were skepticism at first as he was a young doctor who spoke lousy Mandarin
To counter the spread of the plague, he came up with a mask – using layers of cotton and gauze. It was found that Dr Wu’s mask was actually effective and surprisingly it was cheap and convenient too. So, the masks could be produced quickly.
He also recommended that travel is restricted throughout the region and request rail companies to cease operations. Eventually, he ordered cremation of the plague victims’ bodies to avoid further transmission of the disease. Thanks to his brilliant idea, the people of Harbin were then able to celebrate Chinese New Year as they were finally free from the plague.
Dr Wu then expanded the N95 masks as he had seen in the West
He developed the N95 masks 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 the wearer’s face.
He however did not win the prestigious award for his effort in combating the disease. But, he was elected to lead The International Plague Conference. He put in place the infrastructure needed for a modern healthcare system before returning to Malaya
His wife and three sons had died in China and his home and collection of ancient Chinese medical books were burnt. He then settled in Ipoh and opened a general practice clinic. However, Dr Wu died at the age of 81 on 21 January 1960.
There’s a statue of Dr Wu built in his honour in the Harbin Medical University
In honour of his contributions, there’s an Ipoh road and a Penang neighbourhood bear his name and the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society based in Penang is dedicated to preserving his legacy. Sadly, his name wasn’t mentioned in our history textbooks.
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