The Penang-born doctor helped eradicate the deadly Manchurian pneumonic plague of 1910 and pushed for the use of face masks to prevent its spread. Kevin Y.L. Tan documents his life and work.

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Dr Wu Lien-Teh working with a microscope in his first plague laboratory in Harbin, China, 1911. Wu Lien-Teh Collection, PictureSG, National Library, Singapore.

The year 2020 will be remembered as the time when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. As the virus spread through towns and cities, people were made to isolate themselves, to work from home and to don face masks when they went out.

Although few realise it, much of this is a replay of some of the protocols that were pioneered 110 years ago by a brilliant but now-forgotten Penang-born bacteriologist Wu Lien-Teh (伍連德) when he was tasked to deal with the Manchurian pneumonic plague of 1910–11. Wu’s efforts gained him the reputation and sobriquet “The Plague Fighter”.1

The Making of a Modern Chinese Doctor

Born in Penang on 10 March 1879, Wu was the fourth son of Ng Khee-Hock (1832–1916) and Lam Choy-Fan (1844–1908). Ng was an immigrant from Taishan in Guangdong province, China, while Lam was a Penang-born Hakka. Although Wu’s Cantonese birth name was Ng Leen Tuck, he was officially registered as “Gnoh Lean Tuck” by a school clerk who transliterated his name into Hokkien.2 Wu was known by this name until 1908 when, upon arrving in Tianjin, China, he had it transliterated into Mandarin as Wu Lien-Teh. (When Wu was studying in Cambridge though, he was known as G.L. Tuck as the English mistook his personal name for his surname).3

In 1886, at the age of seven, Wu enrolled at the Penang Free School. Seven years later, he sat for the first of his four attempts at the Queen’s Scholarship examination. In 1896, the 17-year-old was finally awarded the scholarship and became only the third student from the Penang Free School to bag this prestigious honour.4

Scholarship in hand, Wu entered Emmanuel College in Cambridge where he continued to excel. In 1898, he was awarded the “Exhibition” (scholarship) in Natural Science at the college, which earned him a stipend of £40.5 Reporting this news, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser speculated that Wu was the first Straits student at either Oxford or Cambridge to attain the status of “Exhibitioner”.6

In his third year, Wu obtained a First Class in his Bachelor of Arts final examination (which he had to take before studying for his medical degree in Cambridge) and was made a Foundation Scholar with a stipend of £60. Thereafter, he won one of two university scholarships offered by St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, which came with a £150-scholarship prize that was enough to cover his hospital training fees for three years. Wu was the first Chinese student to be accepted by St Mary’s where he won a series of prizes: the Special Prize in Clinical Surgery (1901), the Kerslake Scholarship in Pathology (1901) and the Cheadle Gold Medal for Clinical Medicine (1902).7

Upon completing his three-year clinical training in 1902, Wu obtained a House Physicianship at the Brompton Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest.8 At Brompton, he received news from Emmanuel College that he had been awarded a Research Studentship, valued at £150 a year, to undertake postgraduate work at a research institute in either England or continental Europe.

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Wu spent the last four months of 1902 at the Tropical Diseases Institute in Liverpool. At the end of his stint, Wu completed his final examination for his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees. At his oral examination, Clifford Allbutt, Regius Professor of Medicine at Cambridge University, advised Wu to make good use of his forthcoming research stint in Europe and to submit it for the degree of Doctor of Medicine (MD).9

In 1903, Wu spent eight months in Germany’s University of Halle (today’s Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg), under the supervision of the famous German bacteriologist Professor Karl Fraenkel, and then at the Institut Pasteur in Paris under Professor Ellie Metchikoff. Wu then returned to Cambridge University and worked on his doctoral thesis which he submitted to Professor Allbutt in August that year.

Wu successfully defended his thesis and, at age 24, had done everything necessary to fulfill the requirements for his MD degree. However, as university regulations stipulated that there should be a minimum of three years between the initial medical degrees and the MD degree, Wu was only conferred the latter two years later in absentia in 1905.

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Meanwhile, Wu expressed interest in working for the Colonial Medical Service but was informed by the Colonial Office that he would only be accepted as an “Assistant Medical Officer” and not as a “Medical Officer”, as the latter post was reserved for “Britishers of pure European parentage, whatever the qualification”.10 Incensed, Wu decided to accept another Research Studentship from Emmanuel College to pursue a further year of research into tropical diseases at the newly established Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1903, Wu returned to Malaya, stopping by Singapore for a week before travelling to Penang to visit his parents whom he had not seen in almost seven years. He then headed to Kuala Lumpur where he undertook research into beri-beri as the institute’s first research student.11 On completing his fellowship at the end of 1904, Wu returned to Penang and established a private medical practice on Chulia Street that became very popular.12