Dr Wu Lien Teh was born in Penang in the Straits Settlement on 10 March 1879. His father was a fresh immigrant from Taishan, China. His mother was a second generation Straits Chinese in Malaya. Her family originated from China. He had four brothers and six sisters.
He attended the Penang Free School in George Town. A high achiever, he won the prestigious Queen Victoria 'Queen's Scholarship' in Singapore, and went to the UK at age 17. He was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University in 1896. On record, he was the first Straits born Chinese in Malaya to study medicine at the University of Cambridge. He bagged all prizes and scholarships while he was at Cambridge University. He won the Cheadle gold medal for clinical medicine and the Kerslake scholarship in pathology. His undergraduate clinical years (usually years four and five) were spent at St Mary's Hospital in London.
He furthered his postgraduate studies at the School of Tropical Medicine in Germany and the Pasteur Institute in France.
After completing his studies in the UK, he returned to Malaya in 1903. However, the situation in British Malaya could not accommodate him. The British medical system in Malaya at the time could not accept him as he was not a British subject and non-British doctors could not hold any senior or specialist post within that system. Dr Wu Lien Teh instead researched on beri-beri at the newly opened Institute for Medical Research (IMR), Jalan Pahang in Kuala Lumpur, for four years (1903-1907). He finally quit and entered into private practice in 1907.
Opium was traded freely and used widely in Penang. The British provided opium to leper patients and miners. Dr Wu Lien Teh advocated the Chinese males to cut off their Manchu hair queue (long braided hair as pig tail). He opposed gambling and opium activities, including the opium trade. Dr Wu Lien Teh founded and served as President of the Anti-Opium Association in Penang. In his private medical practice, Dr Wu Lien Teh had possessed an ounce of opium tincture for treating his patients. However, when this opium tincture was discovered in Dr Wu Lien Teh's possession, he was charged and found wrong (guilty) which was untrue. His trial attracted worldwide publicity, including the Chinese Government.
He was invited by the Grand Councillor Yuan Shih-kai in Peking to take up the post of Deputy Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin (Tianjin) in 1907.
[In 1910, Dr Sun Yat Sen led the revolution of 1910-1911 in China.]
In the severe winter of 1910, Dr Wu Lien Teh (aged 31) was requested by the Foreign Office in Peking to investigate why many patients died in Harbin, Manchuria. They had died of pneumonic plague. This pneumonic plague pandemic killed more than 60,000 victims in Manchuria and Mongolia. Dr Wu Lien Teh worked on the plaque problem in Mongolia and north China, requesting isolation of infected victims, compulsory usage of face masks, and the corpses to be cremated. The area covered 2,000 miles from north-western Siberian border to Peking. Cremation of plague corpses reduced the spread of plague till it was brought under control in 4 months. This was the first instance Chinese corpses were cremated and cremation continued to be a Chinese funeral tradition till today. His new scientific approach greatly prevented the killer disease from spreading.
It was a great success story and progress in Chinese medicine in China. Dr Wu Lien Teh received recognition as a plague fighter who helped saved thousands of lives in northeast China in the early
1910s following a plague outbreak. After the successful control of plague in Harbin, Manchuria and Mongolia, Dr Wu Lien Teh became world famous.
He chaired the International Plague Conference in Mukden (Shenyang) in April 1911. It was a historic event as many scientists from USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Mexico and China attended the conference.
Later in the same year, he presented a research paper on the plague at the International Congress of Medicine in London in August 1911. His paper was published in The Lancet in the same month (August 1911).
Dr Wu Lien Teh contributed significantly to the knowledge on plague and to humanitarian service for his community in China. He established the Manchurian Plague Prevention Service in 1912. With this foundation, he began to introduce major medical reforms, modernising China's medical services and medical education. During his 29 years of service in China (1908-1937), 20 modern hospitals, labs and research institutions were built, including the Peking Central Hospital. He was the first president of the China Medical Association (1916-1920). A medical reformer, he worked with the Russians during an epidemic in 1921. He was the director of the National Quarantine Service (1931-1937) in China.
He worked hard for the League of Nations and became a world authority on the plague.
The Japanese occupied China and the Nationalists retreated. Dr Wu Lien Teh's villa in Shanghai, China was bombed by the Japanese in 1937. Dr Wu Lien Teh left China and returned to the Malay peninsula.
After having worked in China for 30 years, Dr Wu Lien Teh eventually returned to Malaya in 1937. He worked as a General Practitioner (GP) at 12 Brewster Road, Ipoh (now Jalan Sultan Idris Shah). He provided free consultation and treatment for the poor.
With money collected from the public, he helped started the Perak Library (now The Tun Razak Library) in Ipoh to encourage young people to read.
His portrait was taken in Cambridge in 1956 when he was 77. He continued to work as a GP for 22 years till 1959; he was 80 years old. He then retired from medical practice and returned to Penang. He lived in his new Penang retirement home for a week before he died. He died from a stroke on 21 January 1960, aged 81.
Dr Wu Lien Teh was the first person to modernize China's medical services and medical education.
He is remembered for his contributions in promoting China's public health, preventive medicine and medical education. Bronze statues of him appear in departments and hospital buildings in Harbin Medical University and in Beijing. A museum is dedicated to him and contains his bronze bust. A road was named Jalan Wu Lien-Teh after him in Ipoh Garden South, Ipoh. A private housing named Taman Wu Lien Teh near the Penang Free School was named after him.
Until today, Dr Wu Lien Teh's accomplishment is still recognised at the Penang Free School which named one of its school houses after him, and bearing the green colour.
An International Symposium on him was held in Harbin, China on 18-20 January 2013. The symposium was organised by The First Hospital of Harbin Medical University in Heilongjiang, China with the third Boreal Congress of Cardiology. It was attended by delegations from Malaysia, Singapore, members of the Penang State Government, and investPenang, Penang Global Tourism, Penang Medical College, and members of the newly formed Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society, Penang. An 18-member delegation led by Datuk Dr Lee Kah Choon, headed to China to attend the commemorative symposium on the legendary plague fighter Dr Wu Lien-Teh who was born in Penang. Participants were from various organisations, medical professionals, private individuals and members of the Old Frees' Association.
A conference, 'Remember Dr Wu Lien Teh' was held at the Conference Room, Ipoh Specialiist Hospital (5th Floor) on Friday, 22 March 2013 at 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm.
A book authored by Dr Wu Yu-Lin contains 200 photos of his work on the plague and services rendered in China from 1908 to 1937.
His autobiography is entitled Plague Fighter: The Autobiography of a Modern Chinese Physician (Heffner, Cambridge, 1959).
Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal is the president of the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society of Penang. The Society has proposed Penang as the next venue for the Dr Wu Lien-Teh and Global Health Symposium in 2014.
Dr Wu Lien Teh was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1935. However, he did not win a Nobel Prize for the plague that he had battled in Manchuria and Mongolia.
His biography was presented at the Penang Story Lectures on 19 May 2012. Ong Lay Hong presented on "Plague Fighter Dr Wu Lieh-teh. A Penang Hero who modernized medicine in China". Ong Lay Hong is the Managing Director of Singapore Media Academiy, A MediaCorp Enterprise.
Quah Seng-Sun. 2012. Anything Goes blogspot. Accessed 6 Sept 2013.
Dr Wu Yu-Lin. 2013. Memories of Dr Wu Lien-Teh, Plague Fighter. Accessed 6 Sept 2013.
Ipoh News. 2013. Perak Lecture "Remember Dr. Wu Lien Teh". Accessed 6 Sept 2013.
Rightways Technologies. 2013. Remembering a plague fighter from Penang, Dr Wu Lien-Teh. Accessed 6 Sept 2013.