Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Wu Lien Teh
Ask any Old Free or a current student of the Penang Free School and he will not hesitate to tell you that he is very familiar with the name of Wu Lien Teh. We either belonged or did not belong to the Wu Lien Teh House. I wasn't in Wu Lien Teh House; I was with Hargreaves House. But Wu Lien Teh House was our competitor on the sports field, so we couldn't ignore this name even if we wanted to.
But who was Wu Lien Teh that was so honoured with a House name in Penang Free School? Hargreaves, Pinhorn, Cheeseman and Hamilton, I can understand. At one time or another, they were either illustrious teachers or headmasters of the school. I can also understand naming Tunku Putra House after our first Prime Minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman.
But Wu Lien Teh House? Nope, it was never explained to me in school and I had to find out the hard way: through my own investigations. If you cannot wait to read this dedication till the end, you can take a short detour to the ultimate wikipedia guide on Wu Lien Teh here.
On the world stage, Wu Lien Teh (born 1879) is a revered figure in China. In the winter of 1910, the Peking Foreign Office summoned him to go investigate an unknown epidemic which was killing 99.9 per cent of its victims. This turned out to be the beginning of the large pneumonic plague that swept through Manchuria and Mongolia, and which ultimately claimed 60,000 lives. Within a short period of four months, he identified the source of the disease and ordered the cremation of the victims. This was the turning point of the epidemic. The suppression of this plague changed the face of modern medicine in China.
A lesser known aspect of Wu Lien Teh was that he was from Penang. He came from a very big family and had his education at the Penang Free School. He won the Queen's Scholarship in 1896 and studied medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, registered as Ngoh Lean Tuck.
In 1903, he returned to Penang and went into private practice. He was very involved in social issues and founded the Anti-Opium Association in Penang. As a result, he found himself facing off against the powerful shady forces that controlled the very lucrative trade in opium. Inevitably, the dark forces found a way to fix him up. In 1907, a mere one ounce of tincture opium discovered in Wu's dispensary was declared illegal and it led to a trial that attracted worldwide publicity. But he was also noticed by the Chinese Government in Peking which offered him the post of Vice-Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin one year later.
In 1937, with the Japanese occupying much of China and the Nationalists in retreat, Wu moved back to Malaya where he adjusted to a life of relative obscurity and worked as a General Practitioner in Ipoh. But he never did escape the Japanese in the end because as we know, Malaya was occupied by them in 1942. How Wu had survived the ordeal, I don't know. Nevertheless, in a letter Wu wrote on 4 Oct 1945 to some friends at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in the United States, he said: "We have all gone through terrible times during the past four years. Some have lost brothers and sisters, others fathers, others again have themselves suffered injuries and personal losses."
I've heard that in Ipoh, he gave free medical treatment to those who were too poor to pay. He spent much of his time over his collection of 2,000-plus volumes of books on Chinese, European and Indian art, philosophy, science, history and culture, which were later donated to the Nanyang University (later known as the University of Singapore) in 1957. He practised medicine right up to the age of 80 and then decided to move back to Penang for his retirement. He suffered from a stroke and died two days later on 21 Jan 1960, at the age of 81 years, merely a week after moving into his new home in Chor Sin Kheng Road.
So there we have it, a nutshell recollection of a most remarkable man who was lauded around the world for his medical achievements. But except for the House named after him at the Penang Free School, Plague Fighter Extraordinaire Dr Wu Lien Teh (or Dr Ngoh Lean Tuck) remains little recognised in the state where he was born. There's supposed to be a Taman Wu Lien Teh somewhere but I cannot recall where it is. A very pity indeed. Interestingly, Perak has also honoured him with a Jalan Wu Lien Teh in the suburb of Ipoh Garden South in Ipoh.
As a postscript note, the Singapore-China Friendship Association is organizing a talk on Wu Lien Teh at the Sales Gallery of Eastern & Oriental Berhad in Beach Road, Singapore on 14 Apr 2011. I hear that next year in China, there'll be a big international gathering in Harbin to commemorate him on 13-15 Jan 2012. Already, there exists a Wu Liande Memorial Hospital and an associated Wu Liande Museum in Harbin. But little nothing in the country of his birth. Shameful.