Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wu Lien Teh (Part 2): His 1960 obituary

After having written yesterday's piece, I came across this obituary of Dr Wu Lien Teh that appeared in the British Medical Journal of 6 Feb 1960. There are several small errors which I've left them as they are. Maybe there are less obvious ones too. Regardless, this is a fascinating insight into one of Malaya's most illustrious sons.
WU LIEN-TEH, M.D., Sc.D., Litt.D., LL.D., M.P.H.
Dr. Wu Lien-Teh, who died in Penang on July 21, at the age of 81, was a remarkable doctor who rose to a high position in the medical services of China, where he was first director of the Manchurian Plague Prevention Service and physician extraordinary at first to the Emperor and then to successive presidents. He resigned from his posts in China in 1937.

Wu Lien-Teh was born in 1879 in Penang. A brilliant student, he swept all before him at home and abroad. He went to Cambridge with a scholarship and took a first-class in the Natural Sciences Tripos. He went on to St. Mary's Hospital with a university scholarship, and graduated M.B., B.Ch. in 1902, having won the Cheadle gold medal in clinical medicine, the Kerslake scholarship in pathology, and other prizes. With a research studentship granted him by Emmanuel College he spent a year working under Ronald Ross at Liverpool and then went on to Germany, Paris, and Baltimore. Having proceeded M.D. at Cambridge with a thesis on tetanus, he held a resident appointment at the Brompton Hospital before returning to the Straits Settlements, where he joined the Institute of Medical Research at Kuala Lumpur.

He went to China in 1907, when he changed his Malayan name of Gnoh Lean Tuck to Wu Lien-Teh. On his return to Malaya in 1938 he lived and practised in Ipoh.

Sir PHILIP MANSON-BAHR writes: The name of Wu Lien-Teh arouses many memories. In my student days it was almost a legend, and in my estimation this has gained in lustre ever since. His name stood for a good deal: it stood for what a poor Chinese boy, born in Malaya, could do with the educational facilities provided by the British at that time, which gained him a Queen's scholarship and enabled him to enter Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Everyone fell for this brilliant and versatile Chinaman, and his Western contacts made a durable impression on his mind. He was, and remained, a loyal son of Cambridge, and never throughout his long life ceased to reminisce about his undergraduate days.

After the grand tour he returned to Tpoh in Malaya, where he worked as a general practitioner until 1908, when he was called by the Chinese government to Tientsin as vice-director of the Imperial Medical College there. Thus Wu entered on his official career in China, in which he successfully served unperturbed through several revolutions and regimes, as he so picturesquely recalls in his autobiography.

At the age of 31 came the chance of his career. He was appointed head of the mission to fight the terrible epidemic of pneumonic plaguie then raging in Northern Manchuria. The name of Wu Lien-Teh flashed forth as a monument of devotion and courage. We can never cease to admire his staunchness. He had no doubts what he was up against. At that time diagnosis of pneumonic plague was a sentence of death, the mortality being 99.9%. There were no known remedies and only the vaguest notions of defence. It took a long time before the danger of droplet infection sank in. Doctors stood in front of their patients in full blast of their breath to examine their chests. They paid the price, and the death rate among the medical personnel amounted to 46%. The most unbelieving was Dr. Mesny, the French representative, who, refusing any kind of mask, very soon succumbed. There was little hospital accommodation for these poor refugees and little or no skilled assistance. With the ground iron-hard, graves could not be dug. Sometimes six weeks elapsed before the frozen corpses could be disposed of, even by burning. Eventually in one month some 1,416 were soaked with paraffin and cremated. Altogether the death roll amounted to 52,462 before the miraculous end on January 31, 191 1, when the gruesome bonfire was at its full blaze and celebrations for the Chinese new year had commenced. It may have been connected with the firing of crackers inside the houses, in place of in the customary street, that scotched the plague bacillus. Eventually the origin of the plague epidemic was traced to the marmot trappers who had inhaled Pasteurella pestis from the skins of the tarabagan (Arctomys bobac).

These and many other allied questions on the genesis of plague were brought forward by Wu at the International Conference on Plague at Mukden in April, 1911, and this led to further research on plague in susliks (small marmots) and other wild animals and to the recognition of sylvatic plague. After this episode he became world-famous, but this never affected his innate modesty.

Wu's activities were innumerable. Besides attending conferences in every continent, he became the world's leading expert on the opium trade. He reorganized and modernized Chinese medical education. He wrote much on plague, cholera, anthrax, and venereal disease, as well as on narcotics and medical education. His Treatise on Pneumonzic Plague (1926) is a classic work. Only last year he produced his " magnum opus," Plague Fighter, the Auto-biography of a Modern Chinese Physician, occupying 667 pages, and it is a most remarkable book, packed full of episodes of all kinds, but revealing the author as a great warm-hearted family man, intensely proud of his kith and kin and of his offspring. It reveals him also as a philosopher, tolerant of all the sins and failings of the European West. All through the book he conveys a warm affection for his British friends and admiration for their characters. Until the end, " Tuck," as he was familiarly known, would flash upon the scene here in London from time to time to make contact with his old friends and to show once more the miraculous resilience of a remarkable and lovable old man.

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