Dr. Wu Lien-teh is remembered at Google Doodle today on what would have been his 142th birthday. The Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist has developed a surgical face that is considered a successor to the N95 mask, commonly used today to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Here are key things to know about Dr. Wu Lien-teh:

  • Wu was born in 1879 to a family of Chinese immigrants in Penang, Malaya, modern-day Malaysia. Wu became the first student of Chinese descent to receive an MD from Cambridge University before entering the Chinese Imperial Army Medical College as vice-director in 1908.
  • An unexplained disease struck the Manchuria area in 1910, and the Chinese government assigned Wu to investigate. He described the disease as a highly infectious pneumonic plague that spreads via respiratory transmission, which became known as the Manchurian Plague.
  • One of the ways Wu Lien-teh helped fight the spread of the disease was by making a surgical mask of cotton and gauze, which included multiple layers of fabric to filter inhalations.
  • Wu Lien-teh advised people to wear his mask and worked with the government to create quarantine stations and hospitals, restrict travel and apply progressive sterilization techniques.

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  • The doctor’s leadership helped put an end to the pandemic in April 1911—with the challenge of monitoring the outbreak within four months.
  • Wu created the Chinese Medical Association, the largest and oldest non-governmental medical association in the world, in 1915. Twenty years later, Wu became the first Malaysian and the first Chinese person to be named for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Dr Wu Lien-teh: Face mask pioneer who helped defeat a plague epidemic

Google Doodle celebrates Dr. Wu Lien-teh

Google says: “A devoted advocate and practitioner of medical advancement, Wu’s efforts not only changed public health in China but that of the entire world. Happy birthday to the man behind the mask, Dr. Wu Lien-teh!”

Dr. Wu Lien-teh’s great-granddaughter, Dr. Shan Woo Liu, is an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Shan Woo Liu told Google: “We are honored that Google is celebrating our great-grandfather’s birthday. Just over a century ago, he helped fight off a plague in China and developed techniques such as mask-wearing that we still use today in our battle against COVID-19.”

She added: “A year ago, I was terrified by how little we knew about the coronavirus. Even now, I struggle to imagine how my great-grandfather must have felt as he cared for patients who had contracted the plague.

Dr Wu Lien-teh has developed a surgical face that is considered a successor to the N95 mask.
Dr Wu Lien-teh has developed a surgical face that is considered a successor to the N95 mask.

TGA removes some China made face masks

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has said that not all face masks meet the necessary regulatory requirements for safe use and may remove some masks from the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) following a post-market review.

The Australian sponsors of 5 out of 15 Chinese-made face mask products have been advised to issue either a product defect alert or product notification that describes the nature of the concern to their customers, “so that customers can consider the setting the face mask is being used in, so as to minimise risks associated with its continued use.”

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Potential consequences of wearing face masks

When health care workers wear surgical masks, there’s good evidence it limits the spread of respiratory viral infections in hospitals. But there is no clear evidence that surgical masks protect members of the public from getting or passing on these sorts of infections—most likely because of incorrect use. For cloth masks worn by the public, the picture is even murkier.

Surgical masks are made up of several layers of non-woven plastic and can effectively filter very small particles, such as droplets of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). The masks typically contain an external waterproof layer and an internal absorbent layer. (More detail)

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