Exhibition dedicated to medical frontliners


When my friend, the cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan, gave me the dates a travelling exhibition that was dedicated to frontline medical workers worldwide, would be in Johor Baru, he was quick to tell me that it was bi-lingual in Chinese and English.


Door-gifts to visitors at the Exhibition
dedicated to frontline medical workers worldwide

Tan, who often helped me with Mandarin-to-English translations, knew that I would be interested in this exhibition so he reassured me that the info was also provided in English for the benefit of visitors (like me!) who do not read Chinese.


I made a note that the Commemorative Exhibition on Dr Wu Lien-Teh held from August 19 to Sept 2, was showcased at the Tan Sri Datuk Chang Joo Chiang Museum and Art Gallery in the Southern University College, Johor Baru, and checked my calendar to ensure that I could go to this exhibition.


Dr Wu Lien-Teh was dubbed the Plague Fighter and whose life’s work was brought into focus in 2019 when the world was gripped by the global pandemic caused by the Coronavirus known as Covid19.


The Exhibition poster with
logos of the co-organisers

Dr Wu’s research and experience found that the plague was spread by breathing and wearing a mask could stop its spread.


He designed a thick yet simple mask made of common surgical gauze with cotton layers inside and had this mass produced for the use of frontline workers.


Tied behind the head by gauze bandages over the ears, this came to be called, Wu’s Mask.


In 1911, the spread of plague in Harbin, North-East China, was brought under control by the strict enforcement of wearing the Wu’s masks and this simple but very effective measure, saved countless lives.


Wu’s Mask was the prototype of the modern-day masks we use that had proven its efficacy in preventing the rapid transmission of the Covid19 virus infections.


A portrait of Dr Wu Lien-Teh
and a summary of his life's work
presented in Chinese and English

On the morning of Sept 1, a day before the exhibition should end here, I was at Southern University College to ask my way to the Museum and Art Gallery.


Once I got directions to the building, I reached the lobby where I spotted posters for the exhibition which was held in the Museum and Art Gallery, located on the first floor.


A young lady welcomed me in and presented me with a door gift that were two pieces of face masks that were embossed with the event logo – a portrait of Dr Wu Lien-Teh.


She pointed to the ground, marked with arrows that guided visitors on the direction to walk so that we could better appreciate the information presented in the exhibition.


I stopped to admire a portrait photograph of Dr Wu and started to read the meticulously assembled information on the posters.


A formal family photo with Dr Wu Lien-Teh
[Standing Back Row, Far Right]

Wu Lien-Teh’s parents were overseas Chinese who were married in 1857 and lived in Penang, Malaya. They had 11 children and Wu, their eighth child, was born in Penang on March 10, 1879.


Wu studied in the Penang Free School from 1886 to 1896.


In 1885, Sir Cecil Clementi-Smith who later became Governor of the Straits Settlements, founded the Higher Scholarship system to sponsor gifted students in Penang, Melaka and Singapore to continue their studies in Britain.


A medical paper prepared
by Dr Wu Lien-Teh
on Pneumonic Plague

This scholarship was later renamed the Queen’s Scholarship and in 1896, Wu was the only student who received the Queen’s Scholarship to continue his studies at Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Wu then became the first Chinese graduate who completed his PhD degree in the history of University of Cambridge.


In October 1899, Wu won a three-year full scholarship for clinical studies at St Mary’s Hospital, a prestigious research hospital in London.


His career in medical studies continued when he was a resident doctor at the Royal Brompton Hospital in 1902.


In 1903, Wu continued his research studies in the University of Halle in Germany, and left for Malaya by steamship in mid-July and arrived in Singapore in September.


An early quarantine centre in China

On his return, he worked with the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur to carry out research on fatal epidemics like malaria and beri-beri, diseases that were prevalent in South East Asia.


In 1904, he opened a clinic at Jalan Chulia, Penang, to practice medicine.


In July 1905, Dr Wu married Ruth Huang in Singapore. She was an author of a few English novels and introduced Chinese classical beauties like Yang Kuei-Fei to English readers.


Medical frontliners wearing the Wu's Mask

After they were married, she lived with Dr Wu in Penang before they moved to Peking, China. They had three children but she passed away due to illness in 1937.


In 1910, an outbreak of plague in the North-Eastern province of China killed more than 60,000 people in just four months.


Dr Wu, who was then just 31 years old, was appointed the Chief Medical Officer by the Qing Dynasty (Manchu) government to take full charge of the control and plague prevention in the North-Eastern province.


The autobiography of Dr Wu
Lien-Teh, Plague Fighter

He eventually identified the pathogen of this plague and successfully controlled its spread. Through his research and experience, Dr Wu established quarantine and epidemic prevention measures and advocated the wearing of masks.


It was interesting to learn that Penang-born Dr Wu was a pioneer of modern medicine, renowned for his work as a preventive medicine scientist, medical educator and social activist, and recognised internationally as the founder of public health.


In 1911, Dr Wu proposed and implemented comprehensive epidemic prevention measures as follows:


1]  Organised professional anti-epidemic teams that comprised medical professionals, army and police personnel among other frontline professionals.


Dr Wu at his clinic in Ipoh, 1950

2]  Invented and popularized the use of multi-layer gauze masks, established disinfection spots with corresponding regulations while promoting plague prevention measures.


3]  Established anti-epidemic quarantine zones as well as quarantine compartments for suspected patients and epidemic diseases hospitals.


4]  Established standard procedures and regulations for epidemic inspection, reporting, and case registration.


5]  Established strict steps for transportation of corpses using special procedures and equipment, and the cremation of plague patients to eradicate the source of infection.


A section of the Exhibition at the
Southern University College, Johor

Dr Wu was married again, this time to Lee Suk-Cheng and they had five children. Their home in Shanghai was still under construction when it was destroyed by a Japanese bomb during the full-scale war against China.


In 1937, Dr Wu and his family moved back to Malaya and lived in Ipoh where he opened a clinic and continued his medical practice.


In 1959, Dr Wu wrote about his proud contribution to healthcare in China in his book, Plague Fighter: The Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician.


Written in English, this became an important reference book for studying the medical history of modern China and was widely circulated in China and abroad. It was reprinted in Malaysia and translated into Chinese.


In 1960, at age 81, Dr Wu passed away due to illness.


A photo memento with Tan Chai Puan
whom I met at the Exhibition

My reading of the series of informative posters came to an end and I saw that the text for the exhibition, was prepared by He Yurong.


There was a lot of information and it felt deeply moving to discover that our mandatory wearing of face masks in the past two and a half years while the world battled the Covid19 pandemic, had its humble origins in the research and experience that developed the Wu’s Mask.


And the Wu’s Mask was an invention by Dr Wu Lien-Teh, a Malayan medical doctor.


On Wednesday, September 7, Malaysia dropped the mask mandate in open spaces but should still be worn in public transport, medical facilities and other indoor premises.


This exhibition was co-organised by the Tan Kah Kee Foundation, Persatuan Persahabatan Malaysia-China, Dr Wu Lien-Teh Education Society Malaysia, Southern University College and the Centre for Research on Communicable Diseases, UTAR, in collaboration with the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association, a host of Chinese organisations in Johor Baru, and supported by the Singapore-China Friendship Association.

1 comment:

  1. Is it because he is Asian that he never received the same worldwide recognition as Pasteur or Fleming for pioneering medical work?