Dr Wu Lien-teh: who was the surgical mask pioneer and why is Google celebrating him with a Doodle?

Google is paying homage to Chinese-Malaysian physician Dr Wu whose work is still referenced more than a 100 years on during the Covid pandemic

Today’s Google Doodle pays homage to Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist Dr Wu Lien-teh, on what would have been his 142nd birthday (10 March).

The doodle is split into two halves with the left side of the frame showing Dr Wu making a face mask and the right him offering the mask to people in white overalls.

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A Nobel Prize nominee, published author and self-proclaimed ‘plague fighter’, Dr Wu’s work is still cited to this day as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Wu developed a mask with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air people inhaled to combat the spread of the disease. (Pic: Google)

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But what else do we know about Dr Wu and why has Google decided to celebrate his birthday?

Who is Dr Wu Lien-teh?

Dr Wu is widely credited for developing an effective surgical face covering, which is believed to be a descendant of current masks used today - more than a 100 years on.

Born on 10 March 1879 in the Malaysian state of Penang, in the Straits Settlements, he followed his interest in medicine across the world.

An educated man, who became the first student of Chinese descent to study at Cambridge University, he spent his undergraduate clinical years at St Mary’s Hospital in London.

Following his time in England, Dr Wu returned to China where he started work for the government and was made vice director of the Army Medical College in 1908.

What is Dr Wu Lien-teh famous for?

In the winter of 1910, two years after starting in the post, he was sent to investigate an unknown disease spreading across the north-east region of China, which had a 99.9% fatality rate.

It was the beginning of a highly contagious pneumonic plague, an epidemic later known as the Manchurian plague, which ultimately claimed the lives of 60,000 people.

During the epidemic, Dr Wu developed a mask with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air people inhaled to combat the spread of the disease, which was transmitted through air particles.

The mask was mass-produced and 60,000 face coverings were distributed - but his work didn’t stop there as he led the recovery programme which eradicated the plague within months.

He initiated quarantines, arranged for buildings to be disinfected, and arranged for the old plague hospitals to be demolished and replaced. He also recommended cremating plague victims.

Dr Wu continued to work in medicine, leading conferences and became a well-respected figure among the medical community, for the rest of his life before he died in 1960, aged 80.

What masks have Dr Wu inspired?

Regarded as a surgical mask pioneer, Dr Wu’s invention from 1910 is thought to have inspired the N95 mask which is used to this day to filter airborne particles.

The N95 was originally designed for industrial use in mining, construction, and painting sectors but became more widely used at the start of 2020 amid the Covid pandemic.

Due to shortages of surgical respirators, the N95 was given special permission by the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be worn in healthcare settings.

Does Dr Wu have any medical descendants?

In 2020, a fellow practitioner identified 22 known medical and scientific descendants of Dr Wu.

All of them met for the first time from their various locations across the world via a video conference in May 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of his descendants have gone on to write collaborative articles to honour and remember the work of Dr Wu and his service to public health more than a century ago.