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Image for the news item 'Dr Wu's face masks' on 16 Apr 2020
Above is a bead panel in traditional Peranakan style, made by Dr Wu's mother while he was a student at Emmanuel. The design was based on the Emma lion, but it became a Chinese Foo dog with a flaming pearl. This can be seen in the Peranakan Museum in Singapore.

Dr Wu Lien-Teh matriculated at Emma in 1896, and was the first Chinese person to graduate from Cambridge in medicine. As Madeleine Fairweather writes in the College Magazine in 2017, he was posted to Harbin in north Manchuria in 1910 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to lead a medical team to tackle an outbreak of pneumonic plague in the area.

An article by Christos Lynteris, ‘Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment’ in Medical Anthropology 2018 explains that Dr Wu realised that the disease was transmitted directly between humans in an airborne manner, overturning the theory that the disease was spread by rats and their fleas. Thus he promoted the development of a face mask, which he claimed was his own invention, and the first time such an epidemic containment measure was attempted.

Dr Wu’s mask was similar to surgical masks, but had more protective layers and a more complex tying process, so that it didn’t slip while operating outside in winter-time Manchuria:

‘This consists of two layers of gauze enclosing a flat oblong piece of absorbent cotton 6 inches by 4 inches. It can be easily made by cutting the usual surgical gauze (9 inches wide), as supplied from the shops, into strips, each measuring 3 feet in length. Each strip is then doubled lengthwise so as to contain in the middle a flat piece of cotton wool measuring 4 inches by 6 inches. At either end of the gauze two cuts, each measuring 15 inches, are made. Thus turning the pad into a three-tail gauze bandage, with the central piece of wool for covering the respiratory entrance. The upper tail of one side should be passed round the side of the head above the ear and tied to the other corresponding tail. The lowermost tail should in a similar manner be passed under the ear and tied to the one on the other side, while the middle tail should be passed over the crown of the head, so as to fix the pad and prevent it from slipping down the neck (Wu, L.-T. 1926 Treatise on Pneumonic Plague. Geneva, Switzerland: League of Nations, 393–394).’

There are some wonderful photos in Christos Lynteris’s article!

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