Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine yesterday for her work in developing an effective herbal therapy that fights against malaria, work that first started when studying ancient Chinese texts in a secret project ordered by Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.
Tu becomes the first Chinese scientist to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences who has spent the majority of his or her career in China. She also becomes China’s first Nobel Prize winner in medicine and just the 12th woman overall to win in that field.
The 85-year-old is famous as the inventor of artemisinin, a highly effective treatment against malaria with unbelievable origins.
Tu’s work on artemisinin dates back to a secret military project known only as “523” directly ordered by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Its purpose was to develop an efficient anti-malaria drug as the the disease had been wiping out North Vietnamese troops fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia. The project cycled through hundreds of scientists and researchers, many of whom were purged after less than a year from political vendettas.
Tu turned out to be the most successful of these researchers and found the answers that the Chairman wanted in ancient Chinese texts. She found mention of sweet wormwood being used to treat malaria. Through further refinement, the team developed a compound that attacked malaria-causing parasites in the blood. Not content with tests done on animals, Tu tested the new drug on herself first.
“The work was the top priority so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” the scientist later recalled.
Today, this drug called artemisinin is a key ingredient in frontline treatment for malaria in Africa and Asia. Experts say that it has saved millions of lives. Here’s what the WHO had to say about Tu being honored with the Nobel Prize:
“It is a great tribute to the contribution of the Chinese scientific community in the fight against #malaria… Since 2000, more than 1 billion #artemisinin-based treatment courses have been administered to malaria patients.”
The 85-year-old scientist is still continuing her work in artemisinin at a lab in China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. She has been jokingly called a “Three-Without Scientist.” Tu has no doctorate degree, has not studied abroad and hasn’t received membership in the China’s Academy of Sciences.
She does have a Nobel Prize though. That’s something.