Life and works of a legendary plague fighter

The Sunday Times   21 November 2010

Story by LEONG WENG KAM   Senior Writer


The first comprehensive history of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in English was written by two young, Western-trained Chinese doctors in 1936, nearly 75 years ago. Today, this landmark publication, History Of Chinese Medicine, by Penang-born Wu Lien-teh and China-born Wong Chi-min remains a valuable reference on TCM in the Western world.

Just over a week ago, an original 1936 edition of the book belonging to the late Dr Wu was donated to the National Library by his daughter, Madam Wu Yulin, 84, a retired educationist and founding director of the Regional Language Centre here. It followed last year’s reprinting of the book by the Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House in China due to the recent surge of interest in Dr Wu, whose name is synonymous with the successful eradication of China’s plague epidemic in 1910 that killed 60,000 people.

The book was among 284 items in the legendary plague fighter’s collection which was presented to the library on Nov 12. They included more than 200 photographs dating to the early 1900s, other books on his life and works, medical journals and magazines.

Madam Wu’s daughter, Ms Tai Ai-luen, 56, a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore, who spoke at the presentation ceremony, said the gift marked the 50th death anniversary of her grandfather. She added: “My mother had wanted to make the gift three years ago because scholars and researchers from all over world have been visiting her for the materials and she thought a better place should be the library.” Madam Wu, who suffered a stroke two years ago, attended the ceremony in a wheelchair.

1936 edition of the TCM tome he co-wrote.   History of Chinese Medicine

Dr Wu was a Queen’s Scholar who was the first ethnic Chinese to study medicine at Cambridge University in 1896. After returning from his studies in England in 1903, he did medical research in Kuala Lumpur and fought opium addiction in Penang for five years. He spent the next 30 years in China training doctors, fighting the plague in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin, and helping to modernise medical services all over the country. He returned to Malaya in 1937 and spent his last years in Ipoh where he ran a clinic and died in 1960, aged 81.

Recent interest in Dr Wu began only in 1995 after his daughter Yulin wrote and published the pictorial biography, Memories Of Dr Wu Lien-teh, Plague Fighter,



which was timed for an international memorial conference on her father’s life and work in conjunction with the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Medical Association in Shanghai. A bronze bust of Dr Wu was also unveiled. A biography in Chinese by Dr Wang Zhe, a doctor from China now living in the United States, was published in 2006.

MediaCorp produced and televised a documentary in Mandarin in honour of the plague fighter two years later in 2008. In Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang province in north-east China, where Dr Wu had spent most of his time fighting the plague, a museum dedicated to him was set up in March last year.

And in July this year, Chinese journalist Li Lu, who recently helped save Dr Wu’s former home in an old Beijing neighbourhood from demolition, published a book which traced her discovery of Dr Wu and his work after she was struck by the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003.

Referring to Dr Wu’s book on Chinese medical history in English, National Library deputy chief executive Ngian Lek Choh said that it was “a tremendous effort recording the history of Chinese medicine from its early beginnings in 2690BC to the introduction of Western medicine into China”. She said Dr Wu’s collection of books and photographs would be digitised and made available for viewing on the Internet soon. “They will be accessible to Net users from anywhere in the world,” she added.

(Taken from Sunday Times, 21 November 2010)

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