The trailblazing doctor who invented the face mask

Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast "They Call Us Bruce." He co-wrote Jackie Chan's bestselling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan," and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)If you visit Wednesday's Google search box page, you might notice that the "doodle" -- the cartoon image that the tech giant wraps around its familiar multicolored logo -- honors an Asian man in a white coat who appears to be making and distributing face masks.

Jeff Yang
The man, as my friend Ling Woo Liu emailed me late last night when the doodle first went live around the world, is her great-grandfather: Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist Dr. Wu Lien-teh, being honored by Google on the 142nd anniversary of his birth.
    A century has passed since Dr. Wu's groundbreaking research laid down some of the earliest blueprints for the control of deadly disease outbreaks -- work for which he received a nomination for a Nobel Prize in medicine -- but his life and legacy are more important than ever today, in a time of rising anti-Asian bigotry and the defiant rejection by many of evidence-based public health guidelines.
      "Growing up, my sisters and I heard stories about our great grandfather, the plague fighter. He was our hero," Liu told me. "If he can become a hero to others, it's our hope that his story, and the public health practices that he introduced, will help save lives today and in the future."
        Dr. Wu certainly isn't a household name in the US, or even in China, the nation he adopted as his home. But he should be, especially now: The groundbreaking work he conducted in fighting an outbreak of the deadly pneumonic plague in 1910 -- a pandemic that killed a stunning 99.9% of its victims, and had already led to over 60,000 deaths in the months before Dr. Wu took charge -- likely saved millions of lives, and established many of the basic public health procedures and innovations that have been used around the world to fight pandemics ever since, including our present one, Covid-19.
        In fact, assuming you're abiding by the common-sense Covid-prevention guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the past year, you've become intensely familiar with one of his most important legacies: the breath-blocking face mask.
          After arriving in Harbin, China -- the epicenter of the 1910 plague outbreak -- Dr. Wu conducted a then-rare post-mortem autopsy on a victim of the disease, and discovered something that medical science at the time had not believed: Clear evidence that the pneumonic plague was transmitted by airborne means, and not, as assumed, by vermin bites or exposure to infected fluids.
          He quickly advised the government to establish sterilization of surfaces and equipment, social distancing and quarantine orders to minimize exposure and spread. And he set to work developing a simple and effective personal protective device for medical professionals and other essential workers who couldn't avoid direct contact with potentially infected persons. The simple one-layer surgical mask was already being widely used as a way to prevent doctors from accidentally contaminating the open wounds of their charges -- but it was designed to protect patients, not their caregivers.
          Dr. Wu added air-filtering layers of gauze and cloth to the mask, which would intercept and absorb pathogen-laden airborne microdroplets before they were inhaled, turning the mask into a two-way disease defense for the first time. Over time, his invention evolved into the N95 mask, the personal protective equipment most commonly used by health professionals to prevent airborne infection today -- among people who see masks as vital protection against a deadly illness, as opposed to offensive infringements on what they erroneously deem "personal freedom."
          Epidemiologists long ago confirmed that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans from the Covid-19 pandemic were likely preventable, if we'd only aggressively adopted the tactics first laid out in Dr. Wu's basic pandemic guidelines -- which stopped the 1910 plague in its tracks, thwarted a later outbreak of the same disease, and have since been aggressively adopted and expanded upon by the countries that most effectively prevented Covid-19 from running rampant, like Taiwan and South Korea.
          Instead, in America, we've seen cities and states issuing inconsistent and haphazardly enforced quarantine measures, and citizens engaged in widespread resistance to inconvenient and frustrating -- but simple and effective -- social distancing procedures that empirically are known to save lives.
          And the filtering face mask, Dr. Wu's most important legacy, has somehow emerged as the most despised symbol of the so-called oppression faced by those who bristle under the tyranny of science-based public health. Hardly a day goes by without a new viral video of "mask refuseniks" engaged in theatrical protests against the directive to put a protective barrier over their faces (though based on these videos more than a few of them seem happy to wear body armor). And now, 16 states, including America's third most populous, Texas, have refused or ended mask mandates, even as experts caution that the disease is far from under control, and new, more virulent strains are becoming increasingly widespread.
          It's enough to make one wonder at the roots of anti-mask resistance -- though given the racist and xenophobic language commonly used by protesters who've been captured on camera, one doesn't have to wonder all that much.
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            When Dr. Wu himself was issuing his recommendation that health workers wear filtered masks, a veteran French doctor named Gérald Mesny who had been brought in to consult on the pandemic laughed in his face, shouting "What can we expect from a Chinaman?" before purposely going to attend patients at a plague hospital without a mask.
            Mesny caught the plague and died two days later -- an early example of the deadly effects of racism combined with purposeful ignorance, but far from the last.