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Plague fighter extraordinaire (Wu Lien-Teh)

Millennium markers - Personalities

BORN in Penang in 1879, Dr Wu Lien-Teh was among the first Queen's Scholars from Malaya to read medicine at Britain's famous Cambridge University. Winning almost all available scholarships and awards, he pursued post-graduate studies after his early training in Emmanuel College and St Mary's Hospital, London. He did a year's postgraduate research in bacteriology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and then spent time at other renowned places such as the Pasteur Institute in France and the Bacteriological Institute of Halle in Germany. As non-British specialists or research workers could not join the colonial medical service here, Dr Wu decided to enter the newly-established Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur. Upon returning to Malaya in 1903, however, he began a crusade that would chart and shape his life: fighting disease.

His decision was influenced by a man he met in Singapore: Dr Lim Boon Kheng, the first Queen's Scholar who had read medicine in Edinburgh University. Dr Lim, together with his close friend Song Ong Siang, was a noted scholar and fighter for various social causes. Chief among the pair's causes was their battle against opium addiction.

Dr Wu not only married their ideas into the fabric of his life but also Dr Lim's sister-in-law, Ruth Huan Shu-Chiung.

The couple moved back to Dr Wu's hometown where he set up a clinic in Chulia Street after completing his student research stint with the IMR. In 1905, he got married to Huan.

Dr Wu also began his campaign against the evils of opium. But he faced a great obstacle in the colonial government. The government was practising double standards in the colonies. It could not abolish the practice of smoking opium because much of its revenue came from taxes levied upon opium farms - this despite the British Parliament's statement in 1906 that the opium trade was "morally indefensible'' and that "His Majesty's Government (should) ... take such steps as may be necessary for bringing it to a speedy close.''

Dr Wu's efforts were viewed with suspicion and in early 1907 his dispensary was raided by the Senior Medical Officer of Penang; Dr Wu was fined $100 for the illegal possession of "a deleterious drug'' without a government licence. Dr Wu's appeal against the fine failed.

The idealistic doctor was also involved in other causes. While heading the Selangor Literary and Debating Society in 1904, he had pressured railway authorities to withdraw racist policies that first denied first class carriages to Asians and later segregated them into a separate, less comfortable, first class carriage. The famous Chinese businessman Loke Yew led this protest and Dr Wu and his young friends were at the forefront of the protests.

Colonial secretary for Chinese Affairs W.D. Barnes asserted that Dr Wu and a few other young men like him had "... more brains than discretion.'' Coupled with the opium scandal in Penang, Dr Wu discovered the painful realities of the disease of racism.

However, the case attracted wide publicity abroad and he received a letter from the Grand Councillor of the Chinese Government, Yuan Shih-Kai, offering him the post of Vice-Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin, China.

Dr Wu, probably disillusioned with the state of affairs in Penang, decided to accept the offer, complaining of "the inhospitable shores of my birthplace where neither government nor friends seem to need me''.

In China, Dr Wu's career spanned three eras from the Ching dynasty to the warlord period.

His first real challenge came in the form of pneumonic plague. In 1910, a mysterious illness had afflicted the inhabitants of Fuchiaten, the Chinese sector of the half-Russian town of Harbin in North Manchuria. Those afflicted were stricken with fever, coughed up blood-streaked sputum and had purplish discolourations on their skin; death invariably ensued within days.

Dr Wu and his small team arrived in Harbin on Christmas Eve that year and found an air of "tenseness and foreboding'' among the inhabitants of Fuchiatien. The illness was poised to grow worse with the coming of the Manchurian winter with temperatures dropping well below freezing point. Furthermore, Dr Wu could not proceed with a proper medical programme as he was faced with archaic and stubborn traditional beliefs. It was as though he had stepped into the Middle Ages where performing a post-mortem was synonymous with sacrilege.

However, the death of a Chinese man's Japanese wife allowed him the chance to perform a post-mortem and he was able to confirm bacteriologically his diagnosis of pneumonic plague. He could then request for more drastic measures to be taken as inoculating the population with Haffkine's vaccine and treating the sick with Yersin serum were practically useless. People had to be stopped from moving about and homes had to be disinfected. They also had to be encouraged to wear gauze and cotton masks.

Even in the midst of such a dire predicament, Dr Wu was not spared racial prejudice.

As he required more volunteer doctors and government support, the head of the Peiyang Medical College, Dr Mesny, a prominent French doctor with previous experience of bubonic plague, arrived at Harbin. The Frenchman insisted he be placed in charge of the anti-plague organisation, doubting the capabilities of this young "Chinaman''. Dr Wu tendered his resignation but the government replied that it had full confidence in him. Then, Dr Mesny, who had refused to accept Dr Wu's instructions to wear a mask, caught the pneumonic plague and died six days later.

Now fully in charge of the situation, Dr Wu managed to convince the local authorities to cremate the bodies of nearly 3,000 people on the outskirts of the town. He also discovered that the marmot, a rodent-like animal that roams the Manchurian plains, was the deadly vector of the plague. Hunters eager to skin the marmot for its fur also hunted and ate sick marmots. As a result, they became infected and started infecting the communities that they visited on their hunting trails. It was imperative that the epidemic did not become a pandemic, as these Chinese would return to Beijing for the Lunar New Year.

Finally, after a hard winter, the plague was brought under control on March 1, 1911, when the last case of plague was recorded. The epidemic lasted seven months, covered a distance of 2,720km and killed 60,000.

Dr Wu received high praise from the Ching government and later headed the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Centre that was created in 1912.

He turned down many prestigious offers, preferring, instead, to do research. In 1926 his Treatise on Pneumonic Plague was published by the League of Nations (which had been formed after World War I in 1918). He was subsequently elected as Fellow of that organisation's Health Section. By the time the Manchurian Plague Prevention Centre ceased operations in 1931 when the Japanese attacked Harbin, it had the best collection of pneumonic plague specimens and wild rodents, and the most complete data on pneumonic plague, in the world.

Welch with Victor G. Heiser, and Wu Lien Teh at Peking Union Medical College

Dr Wu's career in China, however, took a great toll on his family life. His wife and three sons died young. Huan, a talented woman who loved the arts, started writing a tetralogy, a romantic account of four Chinese ladies. But she suffered from tuberculosis and died before she could finish the last novel.

Dr Wu eventually remarried and his second wife, Marie Suk-Cheng Lee, travelled extensively with him when he was made Chief Health Officer of four Chinese railways. They had two sons and three daughters. By the 1930s, his life seemed pretty much settled: he lived in Shanghai where he hoped to modernise China's backward medical services. He served as Director of the National Quarantine Service and spent four years building a beautiful villa in the centre of Shanghai.

But that period turned out to be merely the calm before the storm. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and bombed Shanghai, so Dr Wu returned with his family to Penang.

Later, he established himself as a general practitioner in Ipoh and led a quiet "second'' life. His reading habit was still as voracious as before but in his twilight years he read history, fiction and philosophy instead of medical tomes.

He was also a generous man who had donated his savings amounting to $3,000 to the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. He made magnificent gifts to the University of Malaya in Singapore and Hong Kong University in the form of 2,000 volumes on Oriental art, philosophy, science and culture. He also set up a crematorium near Sam Poh Tong cave in Ipoh, firm in his belief that land is for the living and not the dead. He left Ipoh to spend his last days in Penang. He practised medicine till his death in 1960 when he was 80 years old.

Dr Wu's death was mourned by many in the medical profession. His contribution to the Malaysian medical profession lies not just in his words but also in his deeds. He believed that there should be a break with tradition to develop humankind's welfare.

And he was not shy about criticising. He once said that the setting up of private medical practice led to the establishment "of a body of practitioners with no higher object in view than the acquirement of wealth and an easy way of life in society''. He would have preferred the English model of family medicine to take root here.

He was among a handful of Malaysians to earn such acclaim as this, written by Sir Philip MansonBahr in the British Medical Journal: "Wu Lien-Teh flashed forth as a monument of devotion and courage.'' The Times of London: "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.''

Here was a Malaysian who rose above human caprice and racism. Dr Wu's singular act of freeing Manchurian society from the pneumonic plague is in itself a great contribution to humanity but perhaps a more lasting one is his tenacity in attempting to elevate life wherever he was. His life is a testament to the human spirit and an inspiration to future generations of Malaysians.

- Dr Ho Tak Ming is an Ipoh-based medical practioner who has written a book, Doctors Extraordinaire, due to be published next month.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF - : It's unfortunate that the name Dr Wu Lien-Teh is now largely forgotten. This Queen's Scholar and respected bacteriologist certainly deserves to be remembered for he had a great effect on medical history not only in Malaya but also in China. In this week's Millennium Markers, Dr HO TAK MING recounts the life and times of this dedicated fighter of disease.

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