WOU offers glimpse of a Penang hero

The achievements and legacy of Dr Wu Lien-teh are perhaps better known outside Malaysia where he is highly regarded as the ‘plague fighter’ and father of modern Chinese medicine.

About 100 people in Penang however got a peek into his life and work during a public talk on ‘Plague Fighter Dr Wu Lien-teh: A Penang Hero who modernised medicine in China” at the Wawasan Open University main campus. The talk by Ong Lay Hong, Managing Director of Singapore Media Academy, a MediaCorp Enterprise, was part of the Penang Story Lecture series.

The crowd learnt how medicine and the world owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this humble doctor from Penang who shunned the limelight. 

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng attends the lecture.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng attends the lecture.

Ong shared that Dr Wu studied at Penang Free School and was awarded the Queen’s Scholarship of the Straits Settlement at the tender age of 17 (1896). He enrolled at Emmanuel College, Cambridge becoming the University’s first Chinese medical science student.

After graduating in 1902, he continued his medical research at the John Hopkins University and the Japanese Imperial University of Tokyo; eventually he returned to Malaya in 1905 to practice. At the invitation of the Viceroy of the Qing Dynasty, he served in the Imperial Army Medical College in Tianjin.

When the plague struck in 1910, the Chinese government was ill-equipped to handle the crisis, and appointed Dr Wu as Chief Medical Director. He discovered that contrary to widely held medical beliefs that plague could only be spread by rat or flea bites, China’s provinces were being ravaged by pneumonic plague, which was transmitted by human breathor sputum.

Ong shares about Dr Wu, the plaque fighter.

Ong shares about Dr Wu, the plaque fighter.

Dr Wu and his team took measures to prevent further outbreak, including the restriction of travel in and out of the affected provinces, quarantine of the plague areas, cremating all corpses, and building hospitals to house the patients. Within four months, he had the crisis under control.

Subsequently, while serving as the Director of the Manchurian Plague Prevention Service of the North- Eastern provinces, he established the country’s quarantine preventive system and more than 20 hospitals and medical schools.

Dr Wu and his family returned to Malaya in 1937, where he continued his medical practice in Ipoh for the next 20 years. For a brief period during the Japanese Occupation, he was kidnapped and held for ransom, but released with the intervention of a Japanese officer (a former patient).

Dr Wu passed away in his hometown Penang on 21 January 1960 after a sudden stroke at age 81. His legacy of the principles he used to combat plague in China are still relevant today.

Among the attendees at the talk - jointly organised by Think City, Penang Heritage Trust, Old Frees’ Association and WOU – were Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and WOU Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Prof Dato’ Dr Ho Sinn Chye.