“He had the world at his feet but then he chose to return here to private medical practice and live out the rest of his life in relative obscurity,” according to writer Quah Seng Sun.

“He was a real Anak Pulau Pinang, a real Son of the Penang Free School.”

A medical prodigy from small-town Penang

Dr Wu Lien-teh was born in Penang, Malaya in 1879. As a student, he attended Penang Free School and was awarded with the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship in 1896, with which he enrolled to study medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

His brilliance shone from a young age – not only did he to win all possible awards and scholarships in a class of 135 medical students, he also completed his medical degree two years ahead of the requirement, and became the first Malaysian to graduate with an MD from the University of Cambridge.

Dr Wu Lien-teh. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Dr Wu Lien-teh. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Wu went on to continue his postgraduate research at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool under Sir Ronald Ross, the 1902 Nobel Laureate for Physiology. He then joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris to research on malaria and tetanus before returning to Malaya in 1903, where he entered the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur to investigate beri-beri, a disease that affected many Chinese tin miners in Malaya at the time.

Forthrightness in social issues forced Wu to leave Malaya

Shortly after, he returned to Penang to enter private practice. Inundated by the widespread addiction of opium in his hometown, which was particularly rampant amongst the Chinese laboring class, he founded the Anti-Opium Association to campaign against the use of opium, even though profits from opium trade largely contributed to the colonial revenue in the country.

Unfortunately, his bold act pitted him against the powerful British colonists as well as the triad-linked Chinese tycoons, and he was soon framed by these connections. In early 1907, Wu was charged and prosecuted for possession of 28 grams of tincture of opium that was found in the cupboard of his clinic, even though the cupboard was already in his clinic which he had purchased from a British doctor.

At this juncture, Wu received an invitation from the Chinese Government in Peking to become the Vice-Director of the Imperial Army medical College in Tianjin. He accepted the post, and in 1910, went to Harbin in northern Manchuria to address a deadly health crisis – a pneumonic plague pandemic.

Nominated for Nobel prize for victory against the plague

Wu tirelessly immersed himself in research, working with scientists from United States, Germany, Russia as well as Mexico to fight the disease. He performed the first known post-mortem – deemed an act of desecration by the Chinese – and discovered the bacterium Yersinia Pestis.

His discovery concluded that the epidemic was a pneumonic plague, which could be transmitted through droplet contact from an infected individual to another, a starkly contrary view to the initial idea that the disease could only be transmitted by vectors.

Under Wu’s advice, Russian and Japanese railway authorities ceased all train operations in 1911 and movement of the population was limited. Patients were hospitalised and their homes were disinfected, and the public was urged to don gauze-and-cotton masks.

Dr.Wu (centre) with Tunku Abdul Rahman (left) and Tan Cheng Lock, taken in Ipoh in the late 50s. Photo credit: The Star Online
Dr.Wu (centre) with Tunku Abdul Rahman (left) and Tan Cheng Lock, taken in Ipoh in the late 50s. Photo credit: The Star Online

Against protests by the Chinese, Wu sent a memorandum to the Emperor in 1911 and was granted permission for mass cremation of thousands of unburied bodies of those who had succumbed to the disease.

On 1 March 1911, the last case of the Manchurian bubonic plague was recorded, and the seven month epidemic that killed nearly 60,000 people finally came to an end. Wu became the China Medical Association’s first president from 1916 to 1920, during which he helped set up over 20 hospitals. He was regarded as the father of modern medicine by the Chinese. In 1930, he was appointed as the first director of the National Quarantine Service in China.

For his contributions, Wu was conferred honorary doctorates by Peking University, Hong Kong University and Tokyo University, and was nominated for the Nobel prize in 1935.

A remarkable man with extraordinary vision

Wu’s work in China came to an abrupt halt in 1937 during the Japanese invasion, and he returned to Malaya. He opened a clinic at Brewster Road, now renamed as Jalan Sultan Idris Shah, in Ipoh where he provided free medical treatment for the poor and also helped set up the Perak state library.

Wu continued his work as a doctor until the age of 80 and passed away in 1960, aged 81 years, after suffering a stroke.

“By his death, the world of medicine has lost a heroic and almost legendary figure and the world at large one of whom it is far more indebted to than it knows,” wrote The Times London that year.

However, his work remains unforgotten and Wu is honoured globally as one of the greatest contributors to modern medicine. MIMS

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