Today, we thank a very special epidemiologist for the invention of the surgical face covering, which is the predecessor to the N95 mask widely used to stop the spread of COVID-19. That man is Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who was born on March 10th 1879 to a family of Chinese immigrants in Penang, Malaysia. Wu, also known as Ng Leen Tuck, became the first student of Chinese descent to earn his MD from the University of Cambridge, and in 1910 when an unknown epidemic hit the Manchuria region, the Chinese government appointed Wu to investigate the situation. He determined the disease to be a highly contagious pneumonic plague that spread through the respiratory system.
Dr. Wu then went on to improve upon the surgical masks he’d seen used in the West by lining a new one with several layers made of cotton, gauze, and cloth to combat the spread of the respiratory plague. Dr. Wu was appointed by the government and worked with them to establish quarantine areas and hospitals, restrict travel regulations and sterilize equipment. He advised that everyone wear the mask that he designed (a French doctor who refused ended up dying of the plague himself), and through his leadership, he helped put an end to the pandemic within four months. His work eventually led to a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Today, 142 years later, Google is celebrating with Dr. Wu’s very own Google Doodle, where Google says: “Wu’s efforts not only changed public health in China but that of the entire world. Happy birthday to the man behind the mask, Dr. Wu Lien-teh!”