Dr. Wu Lien-Teh

The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-tehHe stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall but Dr Wu Lien-Teh was a dynamo of a man who towered above many of his contemporaries in his area of expertise: medicine. His dedication and contribution toward the advancement of medicine and his advancement of social and cultural causes earned him doctorates from many universities (more about later).

In 1935, Dr Wu Lien-Teh became the first Malaysian to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in the fight against the 1910 Manchurian plague and for his identification of the role of tarbagan marmots (a furry animal found in China ‘s Inner Mongolia and Russia) in transmitting the disease.

In Malaysia, two roads are named after Dr Wu Lien-Teh – one in Ipoh and one in Penang. His alma mater, the Penang Free School’s “green” sports house was named after him – the Wu Lien-Teh House.

The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-tehPenangTrails.com.my would like to thank Mr. Clement Liang, co-founder of the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society (http://wulientehsociety.org) for meeting with us recently to fill us in on the story of this illustrious son of Penang and we are honored to include Dr. Wu in our Penangites Trail Blazers Hall of Fame.

Dr Wu Lien-Teh (aka Wu Liande @ Gnoh Lean Tuck and @ Ng Leen-Tuck), was born in Penang on March 10, 1879. His father, Gnoh Kee Huck, migrated to Penang from Taishan, China, at the age of 16 to become a goldsmith apprentice. He then operated his own goldsmith shop at China Street. Dr Wu’s mother, Lam Choy Fan was from a Hakka family and was a second generation Chinese resident of Malaya.

Dr Wu Lien-Teh’s parents had 15 children; he was the fourth child in the family.

Dr Wu received his education at the Penang Free School (1886-1896) and was the school captain (1894). In 1896 he won the Queen’s Scholarship and he was offered a place at the Emmanuel College, Cambridge to study medicine. He was the first ethnic Chinese to graduate in medicine from Cambridge University. After his undergraduate clinical years at St Mary’s Hospital, London, Dr Wu did a year of postgraduate research on bacteriology at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool under the tutorage of Sir Ronald Ross (a Nobel Laureate for Physiology in 1902). Then he continued his research on malaria and tetanus at the Pasteur Institute, Paris.

The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-tehDr Wu Lien-Teh came back to Malaya after his stint in Paris in 1903. However, at that time, only British citizens were allowed to hold the position of fully qualified medical officers. As such, there was not a position for him and un-deterred, Dr Wu joined the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur to study beriberi, a disease that badly afflicted thousands of Chinese tin-miners in Malaya at the time.

In July of 1904, Dr Wu returned to Penang and he went into private practice by operating a clinic at 273 Chulia Street, a business he took over from a British woman.

The high society in Malaya and Singapore welcomed Dr Wu and he was frequently invited to give public lectures, especially in Singapore. Soon he befriended Dr Lim Boon Keng, a well-known doctor and businessman who was deeply involved in social reforms. He joined Dr Lim and another friend, Mr Song Ong Siang as editors of The Straits Chinese Magazine, a learned journal on cultural and social issues for the Straits Chinese community found in Singapore, Penang and Malacca.

He met his wife, Miss Ruth Huang Shu-Chiung in Singapore. Ms Ruth was the daughter of Wong Nai-Siong, a noted Chinese scholar who was instrumental in setting up the Foochow settlement in Sibu, Sarawak. She was also the sister of Dr Lim’s wife. Dr Wu and Ruth were married on July 9, 1905. The couple lived in a beautiful home at 38 Love Lane with their son Chang-Keng, who was born in 1906.The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-teh

In addition to being a medical doctor, Dr Wu was also very vocal in social issues of that time. He was troubled by the widespread addiction to opium among the Chinese particularly the laboring class and he participated in a nationwide campaign against the supply and use of opium. Dr Wu founded the Anti-Opium Association in 1906 in Penang with the hope of eradicating opium addiction. The Anti Opium Association operated from 72, Love Lane, only doors away from his home. In March 1906, Dr Wu organized a nationwide anti-opium conference in Ipoh, which attracted 3,000 participants.

Dr Wu succeeded in his mission to eradicate opium addiction but attracted the un-wanted attention of the secret societies involved in the lucrative opium trade. A premeditated search was conducted on Dr Wu’s clinic where one ounce of tincture of opium was found. It was illegal to have opium in one’s possession (note that Dr Wu was a qualified doctor who had purchased the opium to treat patients) and as such, Dr Wu was prosecuted and convicted. His trial attracted worldwide attention and outrage; the then Grand Councilor Yuan Shikai of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing (Peking then) offered Dr Wu the position of Vice-Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin (Tianjin). In May 1908, Wu sailed with family, first to Shanghai, then to Tianjin.

The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-tehDuring the winter in 1910, Dr Wu received instructions from the Foreign Office, Peking to investigate a mysterious disease in Harbin that killed 99% of its victims. This was the beginning of the pneumonic pandemic of Manchuria and Mongolia. The pneumonic plague eventually claimed 60,000 lives.

To inhibit this pandemic, Dr Wu advised that movement of people be curtailed. He instructed that the plague victims be hospitalized, their homes be disinfected and contact with healthy people be prohibited. Everyone, particularly those who came into contact with the infected victims was encouraged to wear gauze-and-cotton masks. The old hospital that was infected by the plague was burnt down and a new one was built. He also implemented cremation of the plague fatalities as a way to contain the epidemic. With Dr. Wu’s indentification of the marmot as a transmitting agent and the timely and effective controls he implemented, the pandemic was successfully controlled; on 1 March 1911, the last case of plague was recorded. Altogether, the epidemic lasted seven months.

In 1930, the Chinese government created the National Quarantine Service (NQS) and appointed Dr Wu as its first director. The NQS was headquartered in Shanghai with Chinese staff. The NQS enabled the Chinese government to regain quarantine control of all major ports in China.

Dr Wu returned to Malaya during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937 after having serving devotedly there for near to 30 years. He suffered personal losses during his tenure in China – his wife, Ruth and two of his three sons died of ill-health in China. He later remarried and had a new family of four children and his surviving son from his first marriage.

On his return to Malaya, Dr Wu Lien-Teh opened his private clinic in Ipoh and worked as a general practitioner. He was well known as a doctor who provided free consultation and treatment to the poor. Therefore, long queues were a common sight at his clinic at 12 Brewster Road (now known as Jalan Sultan Idris Shah). Dr Wu was an ardent reader and he was keen to encourage the younger generation to follow his passion in reading so much so that he initiated the establishment of the Perak Library (now known as the Tun Razak Library) through the collection of donations.

Dr Wu is one of the greatest public health specialist of the last century. He was regarded as the first person to modernize China’s health services and medical education. He helped to stop the pneumonic plague, helped China to regain control of quarantine centers in all major ports, and helped to deal with the cholera epidemic in China’s northeast region in 1920-21. He was also active in international conferences and researches. Dr Wu was the first ethnic Chinese to have his work published in the prestigious UK medical journal, Lancet.

To commemorate his contributions to China’s healthcare, a bronze statue of Dr Wu Lien-Teh was constructed at the Harbin Medical University. He was remembered for his efforts in promoting public health, preventive medicine and medical education. Dr Wu was conferred honorary doctorates by Peking University, Hong Kong University and Tokyo University.

A Chinese scholar, journalist and philosopher, Liang Qichao once described Dr Wu Lien-Teh as the only person in China (from the time the late Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China, or about 50 years since science emerged in China) who can meet and talk with foreign scientists as a real scholar.

Dr Wu practiced medicine until the age of 80. His family shifted back to Penang when he bought a house at 39 Chor Sin Kheng Road, Air Itam for his retirement. He passed away at the age of 81 on January 21, 1960. He was cremated and his ashes were kept at the Batu Gantung Crematorium / Columbarium.

His achievements include:
• Was the first Malaysian (indeed the first ethnic Chinese) to graduate from the University of Cambridge in Medicine.
• Consistently achieved the best results in the university. Also obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge.
• Established the Anti-Opium Society in Malaysia and succeeded in his quest to wipe out opium addiction.
• Fought and succeeded against colonial racism.
• Set up a public library in Perak.
• The “Plague Fighter” who saved China from a devastating pneumonic plague.
• Chaired the International Plague Conference in Shenyang (formerly known as Mukden) in April 1911. The event was attended by scientists from USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Mexico and China.
• Presented a research paper on plague at the International Congress of Medicine, London in August 1911. The research paper was published in The Lancet (one of the world’s oldest and well-known medical journal from the UK) in August 1911 itself.
• Initiated the China Medical Association, which has become the largest in the world today. He was the first president of the association (1916-1920).
• Directed the National Quarantine Service, Republic of China (1931-1937)
• Wrote the History of Chinese Medicine (1932)
• Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in the mid-30s. He was the first Malaysian and ethnic Chinese to be nominated for this prestigious award.
• Established around 20 modern hospitals in China and was acknowledged with a museum dedicated to him in the historic city of Harbin, China.

• A private road (Wu Lien-Teh Garden) connecting Sir Hussein Road with Kennedy Road, near to his alma mater, the Penang Free School, was named after him.
• A road named after Dr Wu in Ipoh Garden South, a middle-class residential area, located between Hock Lee Park and Ipoh Garden East.
• Regarded as the first person to modernize China’s health services and education.
• A bronze statue of Dr Wu Lien-Teh was constructed at the Harbin Medical University
• A replica of the bronze statue of Dr. Wu was donated by Harbin Medical University to the people of Penang and installed at the Penang Institute at Jalan Brown.
• The Dr Wu Lien-Teh Institute was launched recently in Harbin, China, which is anticipated to be a beacon for new and inspirational knowledge in public health.
• In order to honor Dr Wu’s work and to inspire new and future generations, the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society set up the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Research Awards (six altogether) that come with a certificate, a medal and cash prize. This award, which is presented on an annual basis at the National Conference for Clinical Research, organized by the Health Ministry, has two components, i.e. the Young Investigators Award and the Research Poster Award.
• Became the first Chinese doctor nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1935
• Wu Lien The Society website: http://wulientehsociety.org/

The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-teh The Plague Fighter Dr. Wu Lien-teh

By Anna Ong & Chan Hock Aun
March 2017