(Image Credit: Bengt Nyman)
Tu Youyou is one of the least known but yet most accomplished scientists. Despite winning the Nobel prize in Medicine in 2015, she still does not have the same fame as other such scientists, but yet her contribution to medicine is immeasurable. Key to her work was her unconventional approach to solving the problems that modern medicine could not solve which ultimately ended in her finding the compound artemisinin.
Growing up in China in the 1930s, after a childhood tuberculosis infection, she was inspired to study medicine at the Beijing Medical University School, studying traditional Chinese medicine. From this, she was uniquely placed to solve the major issues that had come about to that point, as she could take unconventional approaches to medicine that her European counterparts were simply unable to do in the same kind of way.
In communist China, where most scientists were vilified as a member of the 9 designated black categories in Maoist theory, she was fortunately appointed head of Project 523, a project set up by Chairman Mao in 1967 to find a treatment for chloroquine-resistant malaria, a drug which North Vietnam had asked China for help with as it caused huge casualties in the army in the Vietnam War.
At that point, she had to sacrifice her family life to the project, as she left her 1-year-old daughter with her parents and her 4-year-old daughter at a nursery and did not see them for the next 3 years. Later, she said that “the work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.” This showcases her incredible dedication to the field and her sheer want to ensure that she helps everybody.
Testing 2000 traditional medicines and making 380 herbal extracts, one compound, Sweet Wormwood, stood as a potential success. Although her original attempt at extracting the compound through boiling water rendered it ineffective, through reading the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatment written by Ge Hong in 340 she learnt that she could instead achieve this by using a cold-water extraction method. From Sweet Wormwood, she produced Artemisinin, which is now one of the most effective malarial drugs globally and has saved thousands in the developing world.
This remarkable breakthrough came due to how she was able to take unconventional paths to find a malaria drug, and what is more, when first testing the anti-malarial she created, she decided that she should test it on herself first as she was the person who actually made it. This selflessness showcases her eagerness to help everybody.
Now, she remains as the Head of the China Academy of Traditional Medicine. Winning the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2015, she finally got some of the recognition she deserves, and she displays to the world that success from any background is possible: she did not have a postgrad, nor any study or research experience before finding Artemisinin, nor was she a member of the Chinese National Sciences Academy, where the vast majority of the top Chinese scientists came out of.