Outstanding Scholastic Achievement

Professor Mak Joon Wah is an outstanding scholar whose accomplishments have played a major role in advancing research in Parisitology and Parisitic Diseases.
Professor Emeritus Dr Yong Hoi Sen
Member of the Nomination Committee
Outstanding Scholastic Achievement


Professor Mak was born in Penang on 11 December 1942 during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. He almost didn't make it past childhood after contracting pneumonia at a very young age, if not for the determined efforts of a General Practitioner who treated him.

"It was a difficult period for everybody in Malaysia at that time. I became very ill during my early years and because of the war situation it was difficult to get medicine."

In spite of the difficult circumstances, the doctor managed to treat him with the latest drugs available at that time and he became better.

"Later on as I grew older, the same doctor became my family doctor. I had heard so much about his service to the nation and to the people of Penang. For example, he would not take money from those who could not afford to pay for treatment. That inspired me to learn and do things as he did for the people. That triggered me to want to do medicine as a career," he says.

Professor Mak graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Singapore in 1967. Completing his housemanship in 1968, Professor Mak's posting to Hospital Parit Buntar at the border of Penang and Perak planted the first seeds of interest in researching parasitic infections.

The only doctor in charge of the 120-bed hospital at the time, Professor Mak had his hands full tending to the medical wards as well as the obstetrics and gynaecology wards where babies were being born every night.

At that time, Parit Buntar Hospital served many people from the surrounding areas such as Gunung Semanggor, Kuala Kurau and Bagan Serai. Surrounded by paddy fields and irrigation canals, people did a lot of their daily chores in the waterways, he says. As a result, parasitic infections were rampant causing diarrhoea due to amoebiasis and 'kaki gajah' or elephantiasis caused by filiariasis transmitted by mosquitoes.

Following his stint at Parit Buntar Hospital, Professor Mak was transferred back to Penang Hospital where he seized the opportunity to enrol for a postgraduate Diploma in Applied Parasitology and Entomology at the the Institute of Medical Research (IMR) to learn more about parasites and the causes of infections.

"I graduated top of the class and the then IMR Director, Dr R Bhagwan Singh, insisted that I continue to work in IMR. Thus began my fantastic journey into research and looking into ways in which to control the infections which plagued the nation in those years," he says.

"Malaria at the time was prevalent with up to 30,000 cases being recorded during the 1970s and 1980s and filiariasis was rampant as well. It was a big problem. We did lots of research on malaria and filiariasis as well as other parasitic infections," he adds.

Tirelessly conducting and participating in countless surveys in the region, Professor Mak and his team went on the ground nationwide in affected areas such as Felda land schemes, rubber estates and Orang Asli settlements. He also surveyed different forms of filiariasis in countries such as Indonesia, India, Philippines and some parts of China by studying the people's living and health conditions while gathering valuable data for his research on parasitic infections.

For example, he discovered that 40%- 50% of the 500,000 leaf monkeys (Presbytis cristata, Presbytis melalophos and Presbytis obscura) found in Peninsular Malaysia were infected with 'Brugia malayi', the name of the filarial parasite that causes elephantiasis.

He observed that these monkeys lived very close to rubber estates because they probably like to feed on rubber shoots and seeds at the treetops and on the ground at dawn. This was when rubber tappers tapped rubber and mosquitoes were most active at dawn, transmitting the filarial parasite.

"There was this perfect cycle of transmission of filariasis from monkeys to the rubber tappers. We looked at these epidemiological and ecological situations and devised strategies which would control the zoonotic infection among rubber estate workers, a term that describes transmission of the infection from animals to human beings," he says.

To meet the World Health Organization's (WHO's) urgent need for the development of drugs for both filariasis and onchocerciasis (a parasitic infection caused by another filarial worm), Professor Mak and his team developed the "in vitro" culture of the filarial parasite (Brugia malayi) from the third stage to juvenile adults.

This feat has never been achieved before and represents a significant advance in filariasis research. The WHO deemed it so important an advance that it decided to conduct a training workshop on this method in 1984 to disseminate this technique.

Professor Mak and his team also developed and introduced primate animal models for the WHO, to be used in the screening and testing of anti filarial compounds. The findings represented a significant advance in filariasis.

He has also carried out clinical drug trials to assess the efficacy of newer compounds against filariasis. The results of these studies have contributed immensely to the current WHO recommended treatment for lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis which affects millions of people globally.

Recognising the immense contribution of the IMR under Professor Mak, the WHO designated the IMR as the "WHO Collaborating Center for Taxonomy and Immunology of Filariasis and Screening and Clinical Trials of Drugs against "Brugian Filariasis" with Professor Mak as the Director from 1981 to 1996.

Professor Mak is currently the Vice President (Research) as well as Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Research at the International Medical University (IMU) in Kuala Lumpur.

Dedicated and prolific scholar
A dedicated and prolific scholar since 1972, Professor Mak has contributed immensely to the research and control of parasitic and tropical diseases. He is recognised globally for contributions to the treatment, epidemiology and control of tropical diseases such as filariasis (the filarial parasite that causes elephantiasis) and malaria.

Professor Mak has played an influential role in the development of tropical medicine in Malaysia. He has had leadership roles in various professional bodies such as the Malaysian Society of Parasitology and Tropical Medicine.

He was also the Founding Editor of Tropical Biomedicine which is the first Malaysian biomedical journal to be listed under ISI Thompson.

Professor Mak has successfully obtained research grants based on open international competition from the WHO for filariasis and other parasitic infections, a reflection of the recognition of his work by the global scientific community.

Based on his immense contribution to the basic and applied knowledge of filariasis at the national and international levels, he was awarded the National Science Award in 1985.

Professor Mak has published 340 scientific papers, and presented 78 scientific papers at local and international seminars.

He is also a member of several Societies including the Royal College of Pathologists.

An internationally recognised scholar for his contributions to the treatment, epidemiology and control of tropical diseases in general and filariasis and malaria in particular, Professor Mak is recognised as a global expert in filariasis and malaria by the WHO and has been appointed as consultant on these two diseases on no less than 17 different occasions.

Professor Mak believes that excellence must be our goal in whatever we set out to do, and this can only be achieved through perseverance, critical thinking, and passion. "I think we must always persevere and work hard and very importantly learn from anybody around you. Learn from your colleagues, from those above and below you. I think that is the essence of developing yourself in whatever you do. Always ask questions, have an inquisitive mind and above all, be hard-working because there are no shortcuts to success," he says.

Professor Mak is currently working on environment-related problems such as indoor and outdoor air quality, water resources and hospital acquired infections. "These are the places where tiny organisms can cause a lot of problems such as allergies and protozoan parasites that carry bacterial and viral infections," he says.

Not one to slow down, he is also keen on writing more books through which he wants to capture the important elements of his area of expertise for the next generation to learn, to be trained and to have the inclination for good research. "It is through research that you improve yourself, contribute to your country and the people around you," he adds.

Concluding Remarks

Professor Mak is an outstanding scholar whose accomplishments have played a major role in advancing research in Parasitology and Parasitic Diseases. His wide ranging works on tropical diseases, particularly filariasis and malaria, have had worldwide impact and embody the Spirit of Merdeka.

"I think it is very important to be a good role model. Many of us who have achieved what we hope to achieve is because of the role models which we emulate. We must be conscious of the fact that whatever we do, people observe. If we do the right things you will have a positive impact on others just as others have had a positive impact on us. That is important," he adds.

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