The doctor behind the surgical mask

Giants in History: Wu Lien-teh (10 March 1879 – 21 January 1960) was a Malaysian-born doctor who invented a mask that effectively suppressed disease transmission.

Winning the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship enabled Wu to become the first Chinese student to study medicine at the University of Cambridge. The Chinese government later enlisted Wu to investigate the 1910-1911 pneumonic plague in Manchuria. After Wu established that the disease was spread by airborne droplets, he designed a mask with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air. That mask is thought to have inspired the design of the current-day N95 mask. Wu took several other decisive actions that curbed the death rate and helped snuff out the Manchuria epidemic within seven months. He instructed that plague victims be hospitalised, their homes disinfected, and contact with others prohibited. He also called for cremating the bodies of those who succumbed to the disease, since rats rummaging among unburied bodies appeared to spread the disease. Over a century later, it’s clear that Wu’s approach to disease control set a valuable example for public health officials wrestling with threats including COVID-19.

Published: 07 Oct 2021

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