Wu Lien-teh

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Wu Lien-teh

MA, MD Cantab., LLD
Black and white photograph of Dr. Wu Lien teh
Portrait of Dr. Wu Lien teh
Born(1879-03-10)10 March 1879
Died21 January 1960(1960-01-21) (aged 80)
Other namesGoh Lean Tuck, Ng Leen Tuck
CitizenshipCitizen of United Kingdom And Colonies (CUKC)
EducationEmmanuel College, Cambridge
OccupationPhysician, researcher, painter
Years active1903–1959
Known forWork on the Manchurian Plague of 1910–11
Notable work
Plague Fighter: The Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician
Wu Lien-teh
Traditional Chinese伍連德
Simplified Chinese伍连德

Wu Lien-teh (Chinese: 伍連德; 10 March 1879 – 21 January 1960), also known as Goh Lean Tuck and Ng Leen Tuck in Minnan and Cantonese transliteration respectively, was a Malaysian physician renowned for his work in public health and particularly, the Manchurian plague of 1910–11.

Wu was the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge.[1] He was also the first Malayan nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1935.[2]

Life and education[edit]

Wu was born in Penang, one of the three towns of the Straits Settlements (the others being Malacca and Singapore). The Straits Settlements formed part of the colonies of the United Kingdom. His father was a new immigrant from Taishan, China, and he worked as a goldsmith.[3][4] Although his mother's family had originated from China and was of Hakka heritage, she herself was a second-generation Peranakan born in Malaya, .[5] Wu had four brothers and six sisters. His early education was at the Penang Free School.[4]

Wu was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1896,[6] after winning the Queen's Scholarship.[3] He had a successful career at university, winning virtually all the available prizes and scholarships. His undergraduate clinical years were spent at St Mary's Hospital, London and he then continued his studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (under Sir Ronald Ross), the Pasteur Institute, Halle University, and the Selangor Institute.[3]

Wu returned to the Straits Settlement in 1903. Some time after that, he married Ruth Shu-chiung Huang, whose sister was married to Lim Boon Keng, a physician who promoted social and educational reforms in Singapore.[4] The sisters were daughters of Wong Nai Siong, a Chinese revolutionary leader and educator who had moved to the area from 1901 to 1906.[4]

Wu and his family moved to China in 1907 (see below for more details).[4] During his time in China, Wu's wife and two of their three sons died.[4]

Wu remarried and had four more children.

During the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in November 1931, Wu was detained and interrogated by the Japanese authorities under suspicion of being a Chinese spy.[4]

In 1937, during the Japanese occupation of much of China and the retreat of the Nationalists, Wu was forced to flee, returning to the Settlements to live in Ipoh. His home and collection of ancient Chinese medical books was burnt.[7][4]

In 1943 Wu was captured by Malayan left-wing resistance fighters and held for ransom. Then he nearly was prosecuted by the Japanese for supporting the resistance movement by paying the ransom, but was protected by having treated a Japanese officer.[4]


In September 1903 Wu joined the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur as the first research student. However, there was no specialist post for him because, at that time, a two-tier medical system in the British colonies provided that only British nationals could hold the highest positions of fully qualified medical officers or specialists. Wu spent his early medical career researching beri-beri and roundworms (Ascarididae) before entering private practice toward the end of 1904 in Chulia Street, Penang.[5]


Wu was a vocal commentator on the social issues of the time. In the early 1900s, he became friends with Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang, a lawyer who was active in developing Singapore civil society. He joined them in editing The Straits Chinese Magazine.[4] With his friends, Wu founded the Anti-Opium Association in Penang. He organised a nationwide anti-opium conference in the spring of 1906 that was attended by approximately 3000 people.[8][4] This attracted the attention of the powerful forces involved in the lucrative trade of opium and, in 1907, this led to a search and subsequent discovery of one ounce of tincture of opium in Wu's dispensary, for which he was convicted and fined.[4]

Wu began work for the Chinese government in 1907 and became vice director of the Army Medical College, based in Tianjin, in 1908.[3]

Pneumonic plague[edit]

In the winter of 1910, Wu was given instructions from the Foreign Office, Peking, to travel to Harbin to investigate an unknown disease that killed 99.9% of its victims.[9] This was the beginning of the large pneumonic plague pandemic of Manchuria and Mongolia, which ultimately claimed 60,000 victims.[10]

Wu was able to conduct a postmortem (usually not accepted in China at the time) on a Japanese woman who had died of the plague.[4][11] Having ascertained via the autopsy that the plague was spreading by air, Wu developed surgical masks he had seen in use in the West into more substantial masks with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air.[12][13] Gérald Mesny, a prominent French doctor who had come to replace Wu refused to wear a mask and died days later of the plague.[11][12][4] The mask was widely produced, with Wu overseeing the production and distribution of 60,000 masks in a later pandemic, and it featured in many press images.[14][12] It is believed that the N95 mask is the descendant of Wu's design.[15]

Wu initiated a quarantine, arranged for buildings to be disinfected, and the old plague hospital to be burned down and replaced.[4] The measure that Wu is best remembered for was in asking for imperial sanction to cremate plague victims.[4] It was impossible to bury the dead because the ground was frozen, and the bodies could only be disposed of by soaking them in paraffin and burning them on pyres.[3] Cremation of these infected victims turned out to be the turning point of the epidemic; days after cremations began, plague began to decline and within months it had been eradicated.[16]

Wu chaired the International Plague Conference in Mukden (Shenyang) in April 1911, a historic event attended by scientists from the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, Mexico, and China.[17][18] The conference took place over three weeks and featured demonstrations and experiments.

Wu later presented a plague research paper at the International Congress of Medicine, London in August 1911 which was published in The Lancet in the same month.

At the plague conference, epidemiologists Danylo Zabolotny and Anna Tchourilina announced that they had traced the initial cause of the outbreak to Tarbagan marmot hunters who had contracted the disease from the animals. A tarabagan became the conference mascot.[17] However, Wu raised the question of why traditional marmot hunters had not experienced deadly epidemics before. He later published a work arguing that the traditional Mongol and Buryat hunters had established practices that kept their communities safe and he blamed more recent Shandong immigrants to the area for using hunting methods that captured more sick animals and increased risk of exposure.[19]

Later career[edit]

In 1912, Wu became the first director of the Manchurian Plague Service. He was a founder member and first president of the Chinese Medical Association (1916–1920).[3][20]

Wu led the efforts to combat the 1920-21 cholera pandemic in the north-east of China.[4]

In 1929, he was appointed a trustee of the 'Nanyang Club' in Penang by Cheah Cheang Lim, along with Wu Lai Hsi, Robert Lim Kho Seng, and Lim Chong Eang. The 'Nanyang Club', an old house in Peiping, China, provided convenient accommodation to overseas Chinese friends.[8]

In the 1930s he became the first director of the National Quarantine Service.[3]

Around 1939. Wu moved back to Malaya and continued to work as a general practitioner in Ipoh.[4]

Wu collected donations to start the Perak Library (now the Tun Razak Library) in Ipoh, a free-lending public library, and donated to Shanghai City Library and the University of Hong Kong.[4]

Wu was a mandarin of the second rank and sat on advisory committees for the League of Nations. He was given awards by the Czar of Russia and the President of France, and was awarded honourary degrees by Johns Hopkins University, Peking University, the University of Hong Kong, and the University of Tokyo.[3][4]

Death and commemoration[edit]

Wu practised medicine until his death at the age of 80. He had bought a new house in Penang for his retirement and had just completed his 667-page autobiography, Plague Fighter, the Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician.[9] On 21 January 1960, he died of a stroke while in his home in Penang.[5]

A road named after Wu can be found in Ipoh Garden South, a middle-class residential area in Ipoh. In Penang, a private road named Taman Wu Lien Teh is located near the Penang Free School.[21] In that school, his alma mater, a house has been named after him. There is a Dr. Wu Lien-teh Society, Penang.[22][23]

The Wu Lien-teh Collection, which comprises 20,000 books, was given by Wu to the Nanyang University, which later became part of the National University of Singapore.[5]

The Art Museum of the University of Malaya has a collection of Wu's paintings.[4]

In 1995, Wu's daughter, Dr. Yu-lin Wu, published a book about her father, Memories of Dr. Wu Lien-teh, Plague Fighter.[24]

In 2015, the Wu Lien-Teh Institute opened at Harbin Medical University.[11] In 2019, The Lancet launched an annual Wakley-Wu Lien Teh Prize in honour of Wu and the publication's founding editor, Thomas Wakley.[25]

Dr. Wu Lien-teh is regarded as the first person to modernise China's medical services and medical education. In Harbin Medical University, bronze statues of him commemorate his contributions to public health, preventive medicine, and medical education.[26]

During the Coronavirus disease outbreak of 2019, several scholars argued that Wu's work had contemporary relevance to the field of epidemiology.[12][23][27]

In 2020, Dr Yvonne Ho[28] identified and united the 22 known Medical and Scientific Descendants of Dr Wu Lien-Teh living in 14 different cities around the world.[29] In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she organised the Inaugural Meeting of these descendants via video-conferencing. This was the first time that everyone had had the opportunity to meet everyone else.

In July 2020, a collaborative article by some of these medical and scientific descendants was published for the first time, to remember and honour Dr Wu's lifetime work in Public Health.[30]

In August 2020, a second joint article to honour Dr Wu was published by a second group of his medical and scientific descendants. [31]

In September 2020, a third joint article was published in the Chinese language.[32]


  1. ^ Wu Lien-Teh, 2014. Plague Fighter: The Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician. Penang: Areca Books.
  2. ^ Wu, Lien-Teh. "The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1901-1953".
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Obituary: Wu Lien-Teh". The Lancet. Originally published as Volume 1, Issue 7119. 275 (7119): 341. 6 February 1960. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(60)90277-4. ISSN 0140-6736.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Lee, Kam Hing; Wong, Danny Tze-ken; Ho, Tak Ming; Ng, Kwan Hoong (2014). "Dr Wu Lien-teh: Modernising post-1911 China's public health service". Singapore Medical Journal. 55 (2): 99–102. doi:10.11622/smedj.2014025. PMC 4291938. PMID 24570319.
  5. ^ a b c d "Wu Lien Teh 伍连徳 – Resource Guides". National Library Singapore. 26 September 2018. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  6. ^ "Tuck, Gnoh Lean (Wu Lien-Teh) (TK896GL)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  7. ^ W.C.W.N. (20 February 1960). "Obituary: Dr Wu Lien-Teh". The Lancet. Originally published as Volume 1, Issue 7121. 275 (7121): 444. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(60)90379-2. ISSN 0140-6736.
  8. ^ a b Cooray, Francis; Nasution Khoo Salma. Redoutable Reformer: The Life and Times of Cheah Cheang Lim. Areca Books, 2015. ISBN 9789675719202
  9. ^ a b "Obituary: WU LIEN-TEH, M.D., Sc.D., Litt.D., LL.D., M.P.H". Br Med J. 1 (5170): 429–430. 6 February 1960. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.5170.429-f. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 1966655.
  10. ^ Flohr, Carsten (1996). "The Plague Fighter: Wu Lien-teh and the beginning of the Chinese public health system". Annals of Science. 53 (4): 361–380. doi:10.1080/00033799608560822. ISSN 0003-3790. PMID 11613294.
  11. ^ a b c Ma, Zhongliang; Li, Yanli (2016). "Dr. Wu Lien Teh, plague fighter and father of the Chinese public health system". Protein & Cell. 7 (3): 157–158. doi:10.1007/s13238-015-0238-1. ISSN 1674-800X. PMC 4791421. PMID 26825808.
  12. ^ a b c d Wilson, Mark (24 March 2020). "The untold origin story of the N95 mask". Fast Company. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  13. ^ Wu Lien-te; World Health Organization (1926). A Treatise on Pneumonic Plague. Berger-Levrault.
  14. ^ Lynteris, Christos (18 August 2018). "Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment". Medical Anthropology. 37 (6): 442–457. doi:10.1080/01459740.2017.1423072. ISSN 0145-9740. PMID 30427733.
  15. ^ Wilson, Mark (24 March 2020). "The untold origin story of the N95 mask". Fast Company. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  16. ^ Mates, Lewis H. (29 April 2016). Encyclopedia of Cremation. Routledge. pp. 300–301. ISBN 978-1-317-14383-3.
  17. ^ a b Summers, William C. (11 December 2012). The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-18476-1.
  18. ^ "Inaugural address delivered at the opening of the International Plague Conference, Mukden, April 4th, 1911". Wellcome Collection. 1911. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  19. ^ Lynteris, Christos (1 September 2013). "Skilled Natives, Inept Coolies: Marmot Hunting and the Great Manchurian Pneumonic Plague (1910–1911)". History and Anthropology. 24 (3): 303–321. doi:10.1080/02757206.2012.697063. ISSN 0275-7206.
  20. ^ Courtney, Chris (2018), "The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Central China Flood", Cambridge University Press [ISBN 978-1-108-41777-8]
  21. ^ Article in Chinese. "Picture of "Taman Wu Lien Teh"". Archived from the original on 27 August 2011. Retrieved 1 June 2011.
  22. ^ "The Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society, Penang 槟城伍连徳学会 | Celebrating the life of the man who brought modern medicine to China, who fought the Manchurian plague, and who set the standard for generations of doctors to follow. 伍连德博士 : 斗疫防治,推进医学 , 歌颂国士无双". Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  23. ^ a b Wai, Wong Chun (11 February 2020). "Wu Lien-Teh: Malaysia's little-known plague virus fighter". The Star Online. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  24. ^ Wu, Yu-lin (1995). Memories of Dr. Wu Lien-teh, Plague Fighter. World Scientific. ISBN 978-981-02-2287-1.
  25. ^ Wang, Helena Hui; Lau, Esther; Horton, Richard; Jiang, Baoguo (6 July 2019). "The Wakley–Wu Lien Teh Prize Essay 2019: telling the stories of Chinese doctors". The Lancet. 394 (10192): 11. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31517-X. ISSN 0140-6736. PMID 31282345.
  26. ^ Article in Chinese. "130th memorial of Dr. Wu Lien-the". Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 1 June 2011.
  27. ^ Toh, Han Shih (1 February 2020). "Lessons from Chinese Malaysian plague fighter for Wuhan virus". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  28. ^ https://www.DrYvonneHo.com/
  29. ^ https://www.DrWuLienTeh.com
  30. ^ Liu, Ling Woo (18 July 2020). "The Good Doctor". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
  31. ^ Ho, Yvonne (30 August 2020). "The Good Doctor from Penang". The Star. Retrieved 6 September 2020.
  32. ^ Liu, Ling Woo (6 September 2020). "六从医后人就冠病忆伍连德医生". Lianhe Zao Bao 联合早报 (in Chinese). Retrieved 13 September 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wu Lien-Teh, 1959. Plague Fighter: The Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician. Cambridge. (Reprint: Areca Books. 2014)
  • Yang, S. 1988. Dr. Wu Lien-teh and the national maritime quarantine service of China in 1930s. Zhonghua Yi Shi Za Zhi 18:29-32.
  • Wu Yu-Lin. 1995. Memories of Dr. Wu Lien-Teh: Plague Fighter. World Scientific Pub Co Inc.
  • Flohr, Carsten. 1996. The plague fighter: Wu Lien-teh and the beginning of the Chinese public health system. Annals of Science 53:361-80
  • Gamsa, Mark. 2006. The Epidemic of Pneumonic Plague in Manchuria 1910–1911. Past & Present 190:147-183
  • Lewis H. Mates, ‘Lien-Teh, Wu’, in Douglas Davies with Lewis H. Mates (eds), Encyclopedia of Cremation (Ashgate, 2005): 300–301. Lien-Teh, Wu
  • Penang Free School archive PFS Online