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Profile of the Day: Wu Lien-teh

On this day in 1879, Chinese-Malaysian physician and epidemiologist Wu Lien-teh was born. A pioneer of the medical field, Wu invented the surgical face covering that is widely considered to be the precursor to the N95 mask we have all become familiar with today.

Image: Wu Lien-teh / Library of Congress

Wu was born on March 10, 1879 in Penang, one of the three towns of the Straits Settlements in what is today Malaysia. His father was a Chinese immigrant from Talshan, China and worked as a goldsmith. His mother was born in Malaysia, but her family had also emigrated from China. Wu earned his medical degree at Cambridge University, becoming the first student of Chinese descent to earn his MD at the university.

In 1910, Wu was appointed to investigate an unknown disease that was spreading throughout northwestern China. He identified the disease as a highly contagious pneumonic plague that spread through droplets in the air. To combat the spread, Wu developed a surgical mask with multiple layers of gauze and cotton to help filter the air people inhaled. He encouraged medical staff and the public to use the protective mask and worked with the government to establish quarantine procedures, restrict travel, apply new sterilization techniques, and cremate the remains of the plague victims. Within a few months, the spread of the disease was brought under control. Wu’s leadership contributed greatly to the end of the pandemic, which ultimately claimed 60,000 lives.

In 1935, Wu became the first Malaysian to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work.

View Wu Lien-teh’s Geni Profile

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