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About Wu Lien-teh

As we make our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all become familiar with masks and the research showing how they keep illnesses at bay. But who created the first mask to shield us from airborne diseases?

In 1910, a plague broke out in northern China that killed nearly 100 percent of the people it infected. The Chinese imperial government sent Wu Lien-teh, a 31-year-old Chinese-Malaysian doctor, to investigate the new disease. Soon after arriving in the city of Harbin, he immediately shut down trains and travel, and quarantined infected people. Upon realizing that the germ was spreading when sick people breathed and coughed on others, he designed face coverings made of layers of gauze — and required everyone to wear them. His mask is widely considered the predecessor to today's N95 mask. Within four months of arriving in Harbin, the plague had stopped spreading.  

In 1935, Wu Lien-teh became the first Malaysian, and the first person of Chinese descent, to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work to control the pneumonic plague. Today, much of Asia's success in controlling COVID-19 stems from the work Dr. Wu implemented a century ago. Some say we are all here today because Dr. Wu stopped the plague in 1911.   

Learn more from the following resources: 

Photo: Wu Lien-teh in his laboratory in Harbin, northern China, during the pneumonic plague outbreak in 1911. Courtesy of the family of Wu Yu-lin, daughter of Wu Lien-teh.

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