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Google Doodle celebrates Dr. Wu Lien-teh, surgical mask pioneer

Wu's work more than 100 years ago helped knock down a highly contagious respiratory disease within months.

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Google honors Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist Dr. Wu Lien-teh.

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Google on Wednesday is honoring Dr. Wu Lien-teh, a Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist who created a surgical face covering widely believed to be the forerunner of today's N95 mask. To celebrate this achievement, Google dedicated its Doodle to Wu on the doctor's 142nd birthday.

After becoming the first student of Chinese descent to study at Cambridge University, Wu went to work for the Chinese government, becoming vice director of the Army Medical College in 1908. When a highly lethal epidemic broke out in northwestern China in 1910, Wu was tasked by the government with investigating the disease, which he determined to be a highly contagious pneumonic plague.

The disease, which had a 99.9% fatality rate and would ultimately claim 60,000 lives, was being spread from human to human through respiratory transmission. To combat the spread, Wu developed a mask made of cotton and gauze to filter the air people inhaled. It's widely believed to be the ancestor to today's N95 mask, used to help keep people from contracting the coronavirus.

With his leadership and direction, which included establishing quarantine stations, disinfecting buildings, and demolishing and replacing the old plague hospital, the epidemic known as the Manchurian plague was eradicated within months.

For his work to control the pneumonic plague, he was nominated in 1935 for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine -- a first for a person of Chinese descent.

Wu would continue to practice medicine for the rest of his life. He died of a stroke in 1960 at the age of 80.

With much recent attention on the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, Google last year honored Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, an early advocate for the health benefits of hand washing. Google often turns its spotlight on heroes of the medical community, including Dr. Virginia Apgar, who developed a quick method for evaluating the health of newborns, as well as Dr. Rene Favalor, a heart surgeon who pioneered coronary artery bypass surgery.