Tu Youyou was born in 1930 in the city of Ningbo on the east coast of China. Her name is derived from an ancient Chinese folklore which translates to “deer call when they are happily eating the plant Qinghao in the wild.” The poem that follows this will become significantly important to her scientific discovery in the cure of malaria later in her career.
Tu Youyou studied day and night as education played a prominent role by her family in her life and her brother’s. She always desired working in medicine and often used ancient texts and poems to influence her perspective of life and discovery. However, when she was 16 years old, she had to take a break from studying because she had contracted tuberculosis. Her personal experience influenced her to study medicine even more once she returned to school. She wanted to find cures for diseases like the one that had afflicted her.
When she graduated from high school, she chose Beijing Medical College to study pharmacology, where she was trained to classify medicinal plants, extract active ingredients, and identify their chemical structures. She graduated in 1955 at the age of 24 and worked for the rest of her career at the newly established Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. From 1959 to 1962, she took a full-time training course in traditional Chinese medicine that was geared towards researchers in modern Western methods.
In 1969, North Vietnam asked China for help in efforts to discover a treatment to battle the spread of malaria, which was causing tremendous casualties among its soldiers in the Vietnam War. According the nobelprize.org, “the single-celled parasite that causes malaria had become resistant to chloroquine, the standard malaria treatment.” On May 23, 1967, Tu Youyou was appointed to lead project 523 to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria.
Tu Youyou began researching from remedies mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts which referred to plants with supposed activity against malaria. Her team identified some 640 plants and more than 2,000 remedies with antimalarial activity. In those rainforests, Tu witnessed first-hand the impact the disease’s had on the human body. She spent a remaining four years researching, leaving her one-year-old daughter with her parents, and put her four-year-old in a nursery. She explains, “the work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”
Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and it took nearly two decades for WHO to recommend artemisinin combination therapy as the first line of defense against malaria. She was awarded by the Lasker Foundation in 2011, which they called the discovery of artemisinin “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.”
Tu Youyou did not want to be in the spotlight as she says, “I do not want fame.” Her goal was strictly upheld by her strong belief to use scientific discovery to save lives. She accepted the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, her lecture was entitled, ’Discovery of Artemisinin: A Gift from Traditional Chinese Medicine to the World.’