Dr Wu Lien Teh, A Name Malaysians should Be Proud Of

Wulienteh in major uniform
To many a Malaysian, Dr Wu Lien Teh may sound a strange name, but in the international medical fraternity, he is a highly respected epidemiologists and plague fighter. His legendary life story and heroic feats should make all Malaysians proud.
Dr Wu Lien Teh was the first student of Chinese decent to graduate with a M.D from Cambridge University; the first Chinese nominee of the coveted Nobel Prize; a “Medical Jinshi” of the Ch’ing Dynasty and the first Imperial Chief Medical Officer in the medical history of China.

In 1911, Dr Wu Lien Teh successfully stamped out the raging pneumonic plague that broke out in the northeastern region of China, near Russia, under immense difficulties and with decrepit facilities, thus saving millions of lives and terminated a deadly epidemic spanning 3000 km. That won him international acclaim and respect.

Born in Penang on March 10, 1879 to a family of immigrant from Taishan, China, Dr Wu Lien Teh’s father, Ng Khee Bok was a successful goldsmith while his mother Lam Choy Fan , a second generation Hakka in Penang. In 1905, he married Ruth Huang Shu Chiung, the second daughter of Huang Nai Shang, founder of Sibu, Sarawak, an avowed revolutionist and staunch supporter of Dr Sun Yat Sen.
Dr Wu Lien Teh had his primary and secondary education in Penang Free School. At 17, he was admitted to the Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge under the prestigious Queen Scholarship, completed the medical degree two years ahead of the requirement, and virtually won all the available prizes and scholarships in a class of 135 students. With a Research Studentship granted by Emmanuel College, he pursued postgraduate study in malaria at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, bacteriology at the Hygiene Institute of Halle in Germany and the Institute Pasteur in Paris. He was awarded M.D. degree by Cambridge University with a thesis on tetanus.
Upon returning to Malaya, Dr Wu Lien Teh joined the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, researching in beriberi for a short stint before setting up his private clinic in Chulia Street in Penang in 1904. While in private practice, Dr Wu was vocal in many social issues and enthusiastically advocated the cutting of queue, equal education opportunities for female and the banning of opium trade in the Straits Settlements.  As head of the Selangor Literary and Debating Society, Dr Wu lent strong support to a protest campaign led by the well-known businessman Loke Yew, pressuring the railway authorities to withdraw racist policies that first denied first class carriages to Asians and later segregated them into a separate, less comfortable carriage.
Though private practice brought him monetary wealth and improved material life, the young doctor was not complacent. He long yearned to contribute his knowledge and training to a more meaningful course and wanted “to seek positions of usefulness rather than of gain”. That opportunity came when he was offered the position of Assistant Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin by Grand Councilor Yuan Shi Kai of the Ch’ing Dynasty government in 1907.
In the fall of 1910, the deadly epidemic that wiped off one quarter of Europe’s population in the 14th century broke out in the northeastern region of China.  The first fatality was reported in the border town of Manchouli, near Russia, and the epidemic quickly spread to Harbin, the new international township that grew from the development of the railways in the region. Within 4months, it afflicted 5 provinces and 6 cities and claimed over 60,000 lives.
The epidemic soon turned into an international health crisis as the residents of Harbin started deserting the city and discarded corpses on the streets in the frigid winter. The mounting death toll alarmed the diplomatic community in Peking. Foreigners were fearful of mingling with the local Chinese and event restricted them from entering the diplomatic enclave.  Meanwhile, the Ch’ing government was also concerned that Japan and Russia, the two dominating  foreign powers with controlling interests in the Northeastern regions of China, may use  its inability in containing the epidemic as pretext  to take over plague control themselves,  thereby further encroaching  into China’s sovereignty.
 Wu Lien Teh at Lab

At this critical juncture, Dr Wu who was then in Tientsin, was tasked to investigate the epidemic outbreak in Harbin under  the recommendation of Alfred Sze Sao Ke, the Councilor of  the Foreign Office in  Peking , after the Chief Medical Officer of the Imperial Navy, Dr Xie Tian Bao declined the appointment for fear of infection. He arrived at Harbin on Christmas Eve with an aid cum interpreter, equipped with barely any sophisticated medical instruments. Little did the young doctor from Penang realize that he was about to face the challenge of life and death, a war without bullets and canons!

Three days upon his arrival at Harbin, disregarding prevailing law and archaic belief, Dr Wu performed the first ever postmortem in China on a Japanese woman who died from the epidemic. He discovered Yersinia Pestis  in her blood cell and body tissues, and thus confirmed that the mysterious epidemic that scourged the region was plague.  From research and ground reports , Dr Wu further concluded that the devastating epidemic  waspneumonic plague, a disease that could be transmitted by human breath or sputum,  a view contrary to the general believe held by the western experts that plague could only be transmitted if bitten by rats or fleas, i.e. bubonic plague . He quickly reported the findings to Peking and requested for additional fund and medical staff to strengthen the anti- plague campaign.
Dr Mesny, A prominent French doctor from Peking with previous experience in bubonic plague in India, was the first volunteer who arrived at Harbin on January 2, 1911. Dr Mesny however, doubted Dr Wu’s competency and refused to take instructions nor advices from him.  Dr Wu was forced to tender his resignation in an attempt to resolve the conflict in the interest of the anti-plague campaign. The Peking Government however, rejected his resignation and relieved Dr Mesny of his duty instead. Dr Mesny died of pneumonic plaguesix days later after failing to wear gauze and cotton mask while diagnosing patients infected by the epidemic.
The highly publicized death of Dr Mesny shocked the international community and triggered greater support for Dr Wu’s leadership in combating the epidemic.  Now as the undisputed Commander-in-Chief of the campaign, Dr Wu waste no time in setting up special hospitals for plague patients, quarantine stations, blockades to monitor movement of the population and petrol teams to check every household for update on the epidemic situation.

At the same time, Dr Wu convinced the Russian and Japanese railway authorities to cease all train operations under their control in January 1911. The Peking Government took parallel steps by stopping trains traveling between Tientsin and Peking.  These joint efforts effectively cut off all transportation in the region, thereby timely prevented migrant workers from Shandung and other provinces from returning home for the traditional Chinese New Year Festival. The consequence would be a catastrophe of unimaginable scale if the migrant workers were to allow returning to their respective villagers and towns, carrying with them the deadly epidemic disease.

Nonetheless, the death toll in Harbin continued to rise despite these improved and intensified efforts, not until one day in the deep winter when Dr Wu stumbled upon a burial ground littered with thousands of exposed coffins and corpses, of people died of the epidemic.
 Coffins cremation

Dr Wu was aghast at the sight as he knew that the corpses in the freezing winter would serve as a perfect incubator for plague bacillus. The urgent task was to clear these unburied corps and coffins off the snow-covered ground.  And the only way was to burn these corpses and coffins collectively, i.e. by mass cremation, an act strictly prohibited by law and tantamount to sacrilege under the age old tradition.

To overcome this inconceivable obstacle, Dr Wu organized a ‘sight visit’ to the burial ground for all local officials. Shocked at the sight, the local officials quickly supported Dr Wu in sending a petition for an imperial edict to sanction the cremation.  And this Dr Wu received on the Eve of the Chinese New Year, i.e.  January 30, 1911.  The following day, medical history of China was made when some 3000 corpses and coffins were gathered into small heaps, poured over with paraffin and cremated. Miraculously, the death toll of the epidemic dropped from 183 to 165 the same day and declined gradually to zero, with no further infection by March 31, 1911. The deadly epidemic disease appeared to have vanished amidst the noise and bangs of fireworks and crackers!
Following the success in combating the plague epidemic, Dr Wu suggested to the Peking government that an international conference be convened to review and evaluate measures taken and document the experiences of the recent plague pandemic, so that recommendations could be drafted should the pandemic recur. The Peking government readily accepted his recommendation and the first ever international science conference hosted by China, The International Plague Conference was held in Mukden from April 3 to April 28, 1911. Renowned scientists and epidemiologists from 11 countries, including USA, UK, Japan, Russia and France attended the conference. Dr Wu, who had now earned international fame due to his role in combating the Manchurian plague epidemic, was accorded the honor of presiding over the conference. His work in plague prevention was highly commended. Deliberations of the conference were later published in the 500 – page Report of the International Plague Conference, 1911, now a classic on epidemiology study.
The conference has profound impact on the development of modern medical science in China. As Dr Wu prophetically stated it in his address to the conference: “…may I remind you that this is the first International Medical Conference held in China, and it is impossible to estimate its widespread effects. Besides the beneficial results of your observations and resolutions on the subject of plague, the impulses you will set in motion, by the fact of this conference, will react not only upon the national life but more particularly upon the future progress of medical science in China…..”

Dr Wu was conferred the positions  of “Medical Jinshi”, “Imperial Army Major”  and a string of other honors by the Ch’ing government, and called to audience by the Regent, Dai Feng, at the Imperial Palace in Peking. He was honored by the French and Russian government as well.

During the ensuing 20 years, Dr Wu remained steadfastly at the forefront of plague prevention in Harbin. He was Director and Chief Medical Officer of the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service, instituted as a result of resolutions passed at the International Plague Conference and which later became the world’s foremost research center in plague until the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. His perseverance was dully rewarded when he successfully stamped out the plague epidemic recurred in 1921 and the malaria epidemic of 1919.
During this period, Dr Wu devoted much of his time and effort to establishing hospitals, research centers and medical colleges in Harbin, Nanking and Peking. He founded the Chinese Medical Society and many other professional bodies in China.  In 1931, he left for Shanghai after Japanese launched its attack of the three Northeastern provinces of China. He was arrested in Shenyang by the Japanese on suspected espionage while enroute to Dalian, to be released only after intervention by the British authorities. During his stay in Shanghai, Dr Wu dedicated his work mainly to the setting up of the National Quarantine System which was just recently taken over by China from the foreign powers. He returned with the family to Malaya in 1937 after his home in Shanghai was mercilessly bombed and gutted when Japan embarked its full scale invasion of China.
Dr Wu commenced his lifelong crusade against opium trade while in private medical practice in Penang. As a trained doctor, he well understood the damages opium smoking could cause to human health.

Soon after returning to Penang from Cambridge, he founded the Penang Anti-Opium Association in 1905 and was its President and Chief Physician. Dr Wu organized the first Anti-Opium Conference of the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States in 1906. Held in Ipoh, the conference was a resounding success with 3000 participants from all professions and trades.


Dr Wu’s zeal in fighting opium trade invariably antagonized the powerful opium businessmen and the colonial government which depended heavily on its tax revenue from opium trade. His dispensary was raided by the Senior Medical Officer of Penang in 1907 and fined $100 for the illegal possession of “a deleterious drug”, i.e. one ounce of tincture of opium Dr Wu had purchased for treatment of opium patient,  without a government licence. Dr Wu’s appeal against the fine failed.

In December 1907, just months before assuming his new appointment at the Tientsin Imperial Army Medical College, Dr Wu attended an anti-opium international conference in London during which he strongly called the colonial government to ban opium trade in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States. He represented China at the first International Opium Convention held in Hague, 1912 which called for international cooperation in the control of opium trade.
During Dr Wu’s stay in Harbin, he discovered that though sale of opium was punishable with two years imprisonment under Chinese law, Japanese herb traders were glaringly reaping lucrative profits from opium trade. In 1915, upon founding the China Medical Society, he immediately called the Peking government for a total ban on opium trade, which was eventually declared illegal on November 16, 1916.
Dr Wu took his battle cry against opium trade to the international arena as well. At the 6thFar Eastern Association of Tropical Medicine Conference held in Tokyo, 1925, he assiduously expounded the detriments of opium smoking to public health, after completing his report on plague. In China, as a result of his tenacious    effort, two rehabilitation hospitals were built for the opium addicts, one each in Peking and Nanking, and the enforcements of ban on opium smoking was made the mandatory duty of the   National Health Bureau.

Dr Wu went into private practice again after returning to Malaya, this time, in Ipoh where he led a low profile civilian life.  Nevertheless his compassion for the betterment of society remained. He donated generously to build the Perak Public Library, the Perak Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association and the Sam Poh Tong Crematorium. His collections of works of art and books on philosophy, medicine, history and culture of China and Europe were donated to University of Malaya and Nanyang University in Singapore. He declined invitations to join politics by prominent community leaders before Malaya’s independence in 1957.

 UMNO)Tunku Abdul Rahman  MCA)主席Dato Sir Tan Cheng-lock  (2)

During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Dr Wu was once kidnapped by the communist guerrillas and released upon paying a random of 7000 dollars.  Two months later, it was the Japanese turn to arrest him on suspicion of supporting the anti-Japanese forces. He was cleared of the charge after a Japanese officer who was his patient testified his innocence.

Dr Wu started writing his autobiography in 1951 to document is picturesque life history. It took him 7 years to complete this 600 page magnum-opus entitled” Plague Fighter, The Autobiography of A Modern Chinese Physician” which was published by W.Heffer & Sons, Cambridge in 1959.  Dr Wu suffered a stroke and passed away on January 20, 1960 at the age of 81,  barely one week after returning to his new home at  Chor Sin Kheng Road, Ayer Hitam, Penang,
Dr Wu’s death was sadly mourned by the international medical community, as commented  by The Times London on January 27, 1960: “By his death, the world of medicine has lost a heroic and almost legendary figure and the world at large one of whom it is far more indebted to than it knows”
Dr Wu’s myriad contributions to the development of modern medicine in China were prodigious. During his 30 year span in China, Dr Wu founded some 20 medical institutions encompassing hospitals, research centres, medical colleges and quarantine facilities such as the Harbin Medical College, Peking Central Hospital, North-Eastern Military Hospital and the National Quarantine Service.  As the promulgator and first term director, Dr Wu laid the foundations of the national quarantine system by drafting its inaugural rules and regulations, at par with international standards.
Besides the Chinese Medical association, he was  promoter of many other professional bodies such the China Microbiology Society, China Society of Tuberculosis, Chinese Medical History Society.etc. He was the singular choice who represented China in all major international medical conferences at a tumulus time when his ancestral land was undergoing successive political upheavals.
Dr Wu was a prolific writer with publications covering topics on epidemiology, public health, border quarantine, medical education and medical history of China. He co-authored the first medical history book of China in English and spent 15 years writing the classic “A Treatise on Pneumonic Plague”. He was accorded with no less than 20 honorary degrees from renowned academic institutions, including PhDs from John Hopkins University, USA, Hong Kong University and The Imperial University of Japan.
Despite such stupendous achievements, for more than half a decade, Dr Wu remained a relatively unknown in the land where he devoted the best part of his life. It was the SARS epidemic of 2003 that jolted Dr Wu into limelight again.
Mdm LiLu, a retired journalist who was suffering from SARS stumbled on the name of Dr Wu Lien Teh while scouting over reports of past pandemics. She was deeply moved by Dr Wu’s courageous and selfless contributions after trailing his life history in China. Her report on Dr Wu aroused wide interest and encouraged further academic research into his works in China.

In 2008, Dr Wu Lien Teh Memorial was built in the city which he saved, Harbin, besides a hospital and a school named after him. Bronze statues were erected in Harbin Medical University and Beijing University hospital to honor Dr Wu, who is now regarded as harbinger of public health service and father of modern medicine in China. So far, three books on Dr Wu Lien Teh had been published, complemented by numerous public seminars and forums organized by the Ministry of Health, China and the  medical authorities and universities. Three TV series have been filmed to document Dr Wu’s battle against the Manchurian plague.

Dr Wu’s daughter, Wu Yu Ling edited an English pictorial entitled” Memories of Dr Wu Lien Teh,  Plague Fighter”,  consisting of 300 photographs of Dr Wu Lien  Teh, depicting vividly his life history , in Singapore in 1995.  Professor Wong Sin Kiong of University of Singapore has done extensive research into the works of Dr Wu Lien Teh and a book on him is due to be published by end of this year.  Singapore Asia Channel News produced a documentary on Dr Wu Lien Teh in Chinese in 2008 in collaboration with the Chinese Medical Society.
In Malaysia, the motherland where Dr Wu Lien Teh was born and died, alas, other than one small road each in Penang and Ipoh name after him, and a Wu Lien Teh Gallery at the International Medical Research Institute, Kuala Lumpur   plus some relics of Wu Lien Teh in his alma mater, this great doctor who has been so highly honored and respected internationally, remained oblivion!
Surely a physician, who “flashed forth as a monument of devotion and courage”, as Sir Philip Manson Bahr described in Dr Wu Lien Teh’s obituary in the British Medical Journal, is worthy more than just the name of two roads.  Is it not time Malaysia accord due respect and recognition to this outstanding son of hers?
Source :
( Koh King Kee, March 27,2012)

The Chinese version of this article was published in Nanyang Siang Pao on March 1& 2, 2012.


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