Youyou Tu, The Woman Who Discovered A Cure For Malaria

Youyou Tu, The Woman Who Discovered A Cure For Malaria

Youyou Tu, who was born in 1930, became the first Chinese woman and citizen to receive any Nobel Prize. She also became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Tu, a talented scientist, attempted to develop a solution to stop the spread of malaria in the 1970s. She learned how to extract from the sweet wormwood plant a chemical called artemisinin, which can prevent the parasite that causes malaria. Today, artemisinin is an ingredient in medicines used to treat malaria and save lives. Tu, who received the Nobel Prize in 2015, currently serves as the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Chief Scientist.

Tu was the first Chinese-born recipient of the Lasker award who was born and raised in China, received her education there, and produced all of her work there. Scientists were one of the nine black groups in Chinese society according to Mao’s doctrine in the 1960s and 1970s, when Tu continued her research. This was during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Nevertheless, South Vietnam and the United States were at war with North Vietnam, China’s ally. With chloroquine resistance advancing, malaria was a leading cause of death. The southern Chinese provinces of Hainan, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong also had a high mortality rate due to malaria. A covert drug research programme was established by Mao Zedong, and it was given the number 523 in honour of the day it began—May 23, 1967. Scientists worldwide had screened over 240,000 compounds without success.

In 1969, when Tu was 39 years old, she came up with the idea of screening Chinese herbs. She started by researching the historical texts of Chinese medicine, went on her own to see elderly Chinese doctors all around the country, and created a notebook called A Collection of “Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria.” She recorded 640 prescriptions in her journal. In addition, her team created 380 herbal extracts and examined over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes. One substance, sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), which was used for “intermittent fevers,” a defining feature of malaria, was successful.

Few people are aware that Tu not only found a cure for malaria but also agreed to be the first human test subject. I had the responsibility because I was the leader of this study group, she stated.

Her work was published anonymously in 1977. Tu believes it’s scientists’ responsibility to continue fighting for the healthcare of all humans. She once said, “What I have done is what I should have done in return for the education provided by my country.” She was grateful for the Lasker award, but said, “I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured.”

Education and Career

On December 30, 1930, Tu was born in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China. She matriculated in the Peking University School of Medicine in 1951. She studied at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and graduated in 1955. Later Tu was trained for two and a half years in traditional Chinese medicine. Tu worked at the Academy of Chinese Medicine in Beijing after graduation. Only after the Chinese economic reform in 1980 was she elevated to researcher, and in 2001 she was promoted to academic advisor for doctoral candidates. She currently serves as the Academy’s Chief Scientist.

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