Hidden History

The Chinese Doctor Who Beat the Plague6 min read

An epidemic averted in early 20th century Manchuria – Jeremiah Jenne

In the winter of 1910, Dr. Wu Lien-teh stepped onto a frigid train platform in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. He was there to solve a medical mystery, at great personal risk. Over the past few months, an unknown disease had swept along the railways of Manchuria, killing 99.9% of its victims. The Qing Imperial court had dispatched Malayan-born, Cambridge-educated Dr. Wu north to stop the epidemic before it spread to the rest of the empire.

Wu Lien-teh (Wikipedia Commons)

Wu Lien-teh (also known as a Goh Lean Tuck in Hokkien transliteration) was born in 1879, in British-controlled Penang – part of what was then called British Malaya, on the Malay Peninsula north of Singapore. His father had emigrated from Guangdong to what was then known as the Straits Settlements, and had since become a successful goldsmith. At 17, Wu Lien-teh traveled to England to study medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and St. Mary’s Hospital in London. Following stints at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Pasteur Institute in France, Dr. Wu returned to the Straits Settlement in 1903. But once back in the British colony, he found himself constrained by a two-tiered system which reserved the best positions for British nationals and discriminated against colonial subjects.

Dr. Wu also angered powerful local businessmen with his vocal opposition to the opium trade, founding an anti-opium association. The opium traders resented his activism and arranged to have the doctor brought up on charges of – ironically – opium possession. (Authorities searched his office and found a small amount of the drug, which Wu used to treat patients.) Feeling that he had no place in Penang, in 1907 Dr. Wu accepted an invitation from the Qing military official Yuan Shikai to become Vice-Director of the Imperial Army Medical College in Tianjin.

Even in the early 20th-century, post-mortem examination was considered a grave offense against the dead

In October 1910, a mysterious illness appeared in the city of Manzhouli, on the Russian and Chinese border. The disease swiftly spread along the newly-built rail lines in Manchuria, reaching the cities of Harbin and Changchun in just a few short weeks. Because many of the railways were under the control of Russia and Japan, the outbreak became an international incident. The Japanese government offered to send experts to manage the growing epidemic, but the Qing court and their recently-established Foreign Office were suspicious of Japanese motives and worried that aid from Japan would only serve to further Japanese ambitions in Manchuria.  Desperate to get ahead of the situation, the Qing Foreign Office turned to Wu, requesting he travel from Tianjin to Harbin and investigate.

When Dr. Wu arrived in Harbin on Christmas Eve, 1910, he carried little in the way of medical instruments and had only one assistant. One of Wu’s first acts was to order an autopsy on a recent victim. There had been a long-standing taboo in China against post-mortem examinations. Even in the early 20th-century, mutilation of a corpse was considered a grave offense against the dead, with potential supernatural ramifications. Wu persisted (it helped that the victim was a Japanese woman) and found evidence of Yersinia Pestis – pneumonic plague, the same disease which had laid waste to Europe in the 14th century – in the victim’s blood cells and body tissue.

Even after his discovery, Dr. Wu had difficulty convincing authorities and his fellow medical professionals of his diagnosis. A French doctor, Girard Mesny, arrived in Harbin just after Wu. Mesny had experience with bubonic plague during his time in India and disputed Wu’s initial findings, insinuating that an Asian doctor could hardly be competent or qualified enough to handle such a serious case. Wu warned Mesny that the contagion could be spread through respiratory droplets, not, as Mesny believed, through flea bites, and urged his French colleague to wear a mask when treating patients. Mesny paid the price for ignoring Wu’s advice, succumbing to the disease in January 1911.

The death of Dr. Mesny attracted international attention and raised the profile of Dr. Wu, who immediately began setting up special quarantine units and ordering blockades to stop infected persons from traveling and spreading the disease. He had teams check households for possible cases, and even managed to convince Russian and Japanese authorities to completely close the railways in the early weeks of 1911. Of particular concern was the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, which in the new era of railroads had started to become a great annual migration of people traveling across the country to see their families.

It is clear that without the brave and decisive actions taken by Dr. Wu it could have been much worse

The bitter Manchurian winter created another problem for Dr. Wu. Throughout December and January, coffins piled up due to families waiting until the spring thaw to bury their loved ones according to traditional funeral rituals. But the corpses were also incubators, and local authorities reluctantly agreed to Wu’s petition for his team to burn the coffins. Over 3000 bodies and coffins were cremated on Chinese New Year, January 30, 1911.

The tarabagan, or Siberian marmot, suspected as being the original host of the pneumonic plague of 1910-1911 (Wikicommons)

Thanks to Dr. Wu’s efforts, the number of plague victims began to recede, and by March 1, 1911, the epidemic was fully contained. Local wags also credited Chinese tradition with helping to end the epidemic, claiming that sulfur from fireworks over the New Year festival had acted as a disinfectant, or a warning to evil spirits.

The pneumonic plague outbreak of 1910-1911 lasted nearly four months, affected five provinces and six major cities, and accounted for over 60,000 deaths. It is clear that without the brave and decisive actions taken by Dr. Wu it could have been much worse. Had the epidemic gone unchecked, allowing holiday rail passengers to spread the disease to the rest of China could have meant a catastrophic loss of life and possibly precipitated a global health crisis.

In April 1911, Dr. Wu chaired an International Plague Conference in Mukden (today’s Shenyang) attended by scientists from 11 countries including the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Japan and France. They praised Wu for his handling of the 1910-1911 outbreak, and the conference proceedings were published under Wu’s supervision. The villain of the conference was a chubby rodent, the tarabagan or Siberian marmot, which was hunted for food by Manchurian farmers and thought by the conference participants to be the vector of the plague through which the disease spread.

For a time, Dr. Wu was the world’s most famous plague fighter, a title he defended in a malaria epidemic in China in 1919, and a recurrence of plague in 1921. Following the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, he stayed in China, travelling to teach at medical colleges and establishing a national quarantine system. He finally retired to Malaya in 1937, after his home in Shanghai was bombed by the Japanese, and passed away in his hometown of Penang in 1960. ∎

Header image: Brick house built in the Western style at the western edge of Dongtang hutong, the Beijing home of Wu Lien-teh in the 1910s-1920.