Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dr Wu Lien-Teh: Still Malaysia's largely unsung hero

What does it take to make Dr Wu Lien-Teh's name more familiar with the people of this land? 

His works are so well documented in China but still largely unknown in Malaysia, the land of his birth and death.

Apparently, it will still take a lot more work before Wu Lien-Teh will be truly appreciated and acknowledged for what he had done on the world stage of public health. But what impact did he have on the international public health debates of his time?

If the public talk on Wu Lien-Teh, organised jointly by the Penang Heritage Trust and the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society at the former's Church Street office in George Town, Penang, on 1 Jun 2014, can be taken as indicative, he played a very prominent role internationally. More than 50 years after his death in 1960, the Chinese, especially, are still totally indebted to him.

The Sunday afternoon talk in George Town attracted some 30 or so people, including people from the medical profession and some Taiwanese folk, but they were attentive as guest speaker David Luesink, a visiting assistant professor in East Asian History at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, USA, gave an interesting account on his research into Wu Lien-Teh's work and interacted with the audience.

"Dr Wu spent time training in the top bacteriological labs, and was the foremost expert on plague in the world, up till the late 1930s,” according to Luesink.

While Western medical authorities thought it was bubonic plague, he proved beyond doubt to the medical fraternity that it was pneumonic plague and hence succeeded in containing what could have been an international pandemic.

Needless to say, he faced several prejudices while fighting the plague, not least from a very unhappy fellow medical colleague, a French doctor named GE Mesny, who could not accept Dr Wu as a peer and questioned his methods.

Mesny's famous outburst, "You, you Chinaman, how dare you laugh at me and contradict your superior?", was well documented in Wu Lien-Teh's memoirs, Plague Fighter.

The French doctor refused to wear a face mask while examining infected patients in Harbin and himself succumbed to the pneumonic plague about six days after he was exposed to it.

For the record, the Carnegie Fund Committee of France awarded a Foundation Gold Medal to Mesny's widow in May 1911. It was reported briefly in the New York Times of 16 May 1911 that Mesny "lost his life while engaged in heroically fighting the plague at Harbin."

According to the same brief NYT news item, "Mesny was among the foreign physicians who volunteered their services in combating the plague in the Far East. His death occurred Jan 12.

"When he realised that he was attacked by the plague he isolated himself in his rooms at a hotel, drafted his will, and wrote farewell letters. He begged his friends not to inform his wife of his illness, and died alone."

For his life's work, Wu Lien-Teh was nominated in 1935 for the Nobel Peace in Medicine, the only time that a Malayan or Malaysian had ever achieved such high recognition in medical research.

My other stories about Wu Lien-Teh are linked from here.

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