Tu Youyou saves millions of lives every year through her invention and is celebrated as a true groundbreaker. She is the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in a scientific category Physiology or Medicine, and she did it without a doctorate or medical degree, with no training abroad. She was also the first human volunteer to test the ingredient that she isolated believing it would certainly work, and it did!
While working at the Institute of Materia Medica at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine she derived the solution from traditional Chinese medicine, saying “Artemisinin… is a true gift from old Chinese medicine”. She received no patents and had no recognition until over 40 years later.
Early Life and Education
Tu YouYou was born in Ningbo, China, in 1930 and named after a passage in the Chinese Book of Odes describing the bleating of a deer as it ate the Artemisia, a plant that later became inextricably woven into YouYou’s work by sheer coincidence.
Her first contact with the world of medicine came in the form of an education-interrupting bout of tuberculosis when she was eighteen. This inspired her to go into medical research and from the age of 21 to 25 she studied at Peking University’s Medical College, graduating from its school of Pharmacy in 1955. She spent her early professional years studying the traditional Chinese medicine used to cure schistosomiasis – a condition caused by fluke worm infections in the intestines.
Malaria is a mosquito-transmitted disease that kills over 450,000 people every day, with almost three and a half billion living with the risk of catching it. Single-cell malaria parasites invade red-blood cells, leading to fever and, in the worst case, brain damage and death.
Her journey to a world-changing discovery began during the Vietnam War in a secret research project launched by Mao Zedong and his Head of Government, Zhou Enlai. Malaria had become a huge problem in the soldiers’ ranks, claiming up to three times as many lives in the Chinese military as the war itself, and the existing treatments – using chloroquine or quinine – were showing decreasing levels of success.
Tu headed the project and harnessed a combination of electricity, water and microscopic observation to try to find a solution rooted in herbal medicine.
“Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world.”
The Discovery – Artemisinin
The progress in her research took place alongside wider developments in the Chinese medical community, as the country evolved out of the wake of the economic hardship of war and the “Cultural Revolution”. Reforms and a more general ‘opening up’ to the rest of the world through the 1970s allowed for better treatment and wider recognition of scientific researchers in China.
After painstaking examination of the effects of different plant extracts in other malaria-infected creatures, the Artemisia annua plant emerged as the most likely candidate, but showed inconsistent results until Tu began exploring ancient literature, in which she found ways to isolate its active ingredient, now known as ‘artemisinin’.
Artemisinin is now the basis of a new group of antimalarial medicines which kill the Malaria parasites early on in their growth. It’s said to reduce the Malaria death rate in people treated with it by 20% (30% for children) representing over 100,000 lives a year saved in African countries alone.
It’s worth noting that Tu never benefited commercially from this work, as China had nothing akin to a patent with which she could protect her intellectual property rights in the discovery. However, to have such a positive impact on so many societies far outweighs any conceivable commercial gain or acclaim. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015 for her work and, upon receiving it, the 85-year old said:
“I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured.”
To this day, she still maintains that the link between her name and her life’s work is a happy coincidence.