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  • Gordon Dumoulin

Meet late Dr. Wu, the man behind the N95 masks...

Meet late Dr. Wu, the man renowned for the invention of today’s modern face masks and successfully fighting epidemics in China. Born in Penang (Malaysia, 1879) and Nobel prize nominee in Physiology or Medicine in 1935, Dr. Wu was the first Cambridge medical graduate from Chinese descent. (his parents immigrated from Southern China’s Guangdong province).

Upon his return to Penang, one of the 3 towns of the British Straits Settlements colony at (together with Singapore and Malacca), he became a scientist at the local Institute of Medical Research. He was also a strong advocate and vigorously fighting against the opium trade and distribution controlled by the British colonists. This led to a (framed) conviction and Dr. Wu fled Penang for China upon invitation by the Qing government, becoming the vice-director of the Imperial Army medical College.

In 1910, he was sent to Harbin to investigate an unknown spreading disease, the Manchurian Plague.

He found out that the plague was spreading by air and developed masks with layers of gauze and cotton to filter air. It is believed that the N95 mask originated from Dr. Wu’s investion. Gérald Mesny, a prominent French doctor, who had come to replace Dr. Wu, did not qualify his research and refused to wear a mask. He died days later of the plague.

Dr. Wu broke ancient Chinese cultural ceilings in various ways, asking (and granted) permissions by the Qing court for postmortem research and immediate cremations of victims to contain the epidemic. He was rigorous with quarantine measures and his successful approach made him worldwide known and invited in years thereafter.

Dr. Wu left China for Penang again in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China where he continued his medical career. Dr. Wu was a Mandarin (bureaucrat scholar) and awarded by various presidents and universities throughout his life.

He passed away in 1960 at the age of 80 (March 10 was his 142nd birthday, therefore the “doodle” honor for Dr. Wu by Google).

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