Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Wu Lien-teh (Chinese: 伍連德; pinyin: Wǔ Liándé; Goh Lean Tuck and Ng Leen Tuck in Minnan and Cantonese transliteration respectively; 10 March 1879 – 21 January 1960) was a Malayan physician renowned for his work in public health, particularly the Manchurian plague of 1910–11. He is the inventor of the Wu mask, which is the forerunner of today's N95 respirator.
Wu was the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge. He was also the first Malayan nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1935.
Wu was born in Penang, one of the three towns of the Straits Settlements (the others being Malacca and Singapore), currently as one of the states of Malaysia. The Straits Settlements formed part of the colonies of the United Kingdom. His father was a recent immigrant from Taishan, China, and worked as a goldsmith. Wu's mother's was of Hakka heritage and was a second-generation Peranakan born in Malaya. Wu had four brothers and six sisters. His early education was at the Penang Free School, a Church of England school.
Wu was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1896, after winning the Queen's Scholarship. He had a successful career at university, winning virtually all the available prizes and scholarships. His undergraduate clinical years were spent at St Mary's Hospital, London and he then continued his studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (under Sir Ronald Ross), the Pasteur Institute, Halle University, and the Selangor Institute.
Wu returned to the Straits Settlements in 1903. Some time after that, he married Ruth Shu-chiung Huang, whose sister was married to Lim Boon Keng, a physician who promoted social and educational reforms in Singapore. The sisters were daughters of Wong Nai Siong, a Chinese revolutionary leader and educator who had moved to the area from 1901 to 1906.
Wu and his family moved to China in 1907. During his time in China, Wu's wife and two of their three sons died. While Ms Huang lived in Peking, Wu started a second family in Shanghai with Marie Lee Sukcheng, whom he had met in Manchuria. Wu had four children with Lee.
During the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in November 1931, Wu was detained and interrogated by the Japanese authorities under suspicion of being a Chinese spy.
In 1937, during the Japanese occupation of much of China and the retreat of the Nationalists, Wu was forced to flee, returning to the Settlements to live in Ipoh. His home and all his ancient Chinese medical books were burnt.
In 1943 Wu was captured by Malayan left-wing resistance fighters and held for ransom. Then he nearly was prosecuted by the Japanese for supporting the resistance movement by paying the ransom, but was protected by having treated a Japanese officer. He was interrogated by the Japanese at the Leong Sin Nam bungalow, which was being used by the Japanese Kempetai, in Ipoh.