- Emily Pan
Face Mask Inventor: Dr. Wu Lien-teh
On March 10, 2021, Google's logo tribute featured Dr. Wu Lien-teh, a Chinese man who saved so many lives during the coronavirus pandemic, on his 142nd birthday. Dr. Wu Lien-teh is credited for creating the surgical face mask.
Dr. Wu invented the surgical face mask in response to the 1910 Manchurian Plague which spread throughout northern China. The Chinese government had appointed Dr. Wu to investigate the disease, and he concluded that it was a highly contagious plague that spread through respiratory transmission. Thus, Dr. Wu designed a special face mask filled with several layers of cotton and gauze to filter inhalations.
Besides wearing face masks, Dr. Wu restricted travel, created quarantine centers and promoted intense sanitation. Within four months, Dr. Wu contained the virus. Today, those same precautions are being taken to control the coronavirus.
Today, Dr. Wu's invention is regarded as the precursor of the N95 mask and "Wu Lien-teh remains as much of a hero now as he was then" (Marcos, para. 9).
Not only was Dr. Wu the inventor of the surgical face mask, but he was also one of the first students of Chinese ancestry to receive a degree in medicine from Cambridge University. Then in 1935, he was the first person of Chinese ancestry to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition for his work in controlling the plague.
Dr. Wu died at the age of 80 in 1960, but as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, "A devoted advocate and practitioner of medical advancement, Wu’s efforts not only changed public health in China but that of the entire world" (Marcos, para. 11).
Marcos, Coral Murphy. “Google Doodle Celebrates Surgical Face Mask Inventor Dr. Wu Lien-Teh's 142nd Birthday.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 Mar. 2021, www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2021/03/10/face-mask-inventor-google-doodle-marks-dr-wu-lien-tehs-birthday/6936312002/.
Wong, K.C. and Wu, Lien-Teh. Dr Wu Lien Teh. n.d., Photograph, Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/aa6ety53.