By Sam Wong

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Wu Lien-teh, an epidemiologist who pioneered the use of face masks to fight an epidemic over a century before the advent of covid-19

Wu was born on this day in 1879 in Penang, Malaysia and educated in the UK He was enlisted to work on a deadly disease outbreak in northeast China in December 1910. The first to be hit were marmot hunters and fur traders, who were part of a thriving marmot skin trade in the area

After a post-mortem examination – the first conducted in China – Wu managed to isolate and cultivate the bacterium responsible for the disease and identify it as Yersinia pestis, which was known from previous epidemics of bubonic plague

Wu understood that the disease could be transmitted through respiratory droplets and not just caught by rats or fleas as many believed at the time

Wu made a mask out of cotton and gauze, with extra layers of fabric and more secure bonds to enhance previous designs. He encouraged medical workers and others to wear it to protect themselves The first time the use of masks became widespread was part of a disease control strategy, however, it encountered resistance: a French colleague died of the plague after refusing to wear a mask

Wu advised authorities to restrict movement, including stopping trains to limit the spread of the disease and instruct sick people to self-isolate.He also persuaded officials to sanction the cremation of corpses, which is what China normally does was not accepted

The last case of the disease was recorded in March 1911. It became known as the Manchurian plague, killing an estimated 60000 people

Wu chaired an international conference on the plague this year, helping to spread knowledge on how to respond to outbreaks.The epidemic helped convince China’s leaders of the need for modern public health, and Wu helped to establish him in numerous roles before returning to Malaysia in 1937

Dr Wu Lien-teh, wu lien-teh

World News – GB – Dr Wu Lien-teh: Face mask pioneer who helped fight a plague epidemic