Tu Youyou: Nobel Laureate

By Aakshi Agarwal

If you have tuned into the world of academia recently, you have heard its notable buzz about the Nobel Prize winners. While many researchers slave away, these select few have earned the highest distinctions in the land. In 2015, awards were granted in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economics. Of all, the most striking is in Physiology/Medicine.

This year, the prize in Physiology/Medicine was shared among William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Tu Youyou. Campbell and Ōmura worked together on Avermectin, a drug that eliminates river blindness and reduces filarisis. Unlike her colleagues, Tu worked on a natural cure to malaria.

Malaria is a parasitic infection spread by mosquitoes. Approximately 3.4 billion people live in areas at risk of malaria infection. In 2013 alone, 500,000 people are estimated to have died from malaria. Moreover, there are several known epidemics across Asia and Africa. Surprisingly, the Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded for malaria four times. Malaria is unlike any disease in that its researchers have been so generously rewarded. The United States of America is no exception to malaria. Once it spreads here, there is no telling what will stop it and when.

The true hero of this story is Tu Youyou. Without fail, Nobel Prizes typically go to men. Moreover, one had never gone to a person of Chinese origin before Tu. Youyou’s win broke sound barriers, glass ceilings, and cultural boundaries. Tu was born in Ningbo, a port city far from the American ideas about Shanghai. She went on to study at the Peking University School of Medicine and graduated from the Department of Pharmacology just four years later. Though, she never earned a PhD or MD. She later married Li Tingzhao, a former classmate.


Tu Youyou as captured by Associated Press

In 1969, Tu’s life changed. She was a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tu was recruited to a project so secret it had to be called “523.” The project had only been created two years earlier! The government hoped to stop the prolific spread of malaria from claiming the Chinese south-west. Early on, Tu took the lead on the project. The catch was that the cure had to be from nature.

Tu was sent to a tropical island called Hainan. In its lush rainforests and unbearable heat, Youyou saw the devastation of malaria in all ages. By the time she began searching, over 240,000 compounds had been tested already. In ancient textbooks, Tu discovered the possibility of sweet wormwood, Artemisia annua, being a cure. Initially, the results were promising but not entirely convincing. Her team identified an active compound in wormwood which attacked the parasites in the body. The active compound later became known as artemisinin. Though, this was not enough for Tu. She needed to know that it was safe, so she went the conventional route. Tu tested the drug on herself! Some say that her discovery and bravery have saved millions of lives.

However, Tu did not garner immediate media attention or recognition. In 2011, she earned the Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award. In 2007, Tu told China’s Global People magazine that she did not become a researcher for fame. She didn’t even go into research for malaria. In fact, many rejected her and claimed she was seeking attention when she published an autobiography in 2007. In parts of Asia, women are asked to be “modest.” Despite all of this, Tu lived on and became one of the most famous researchers overnight.

Young researchers all over the world should take note of Tu’s inspiring story. Without a PhD, MD, cultural support, or fancy facilities, Tu went onto win the most prestigious honor of all time. For centuries to come, Tu’s work will change and save millions of lives.

Works Consulted

  • Hatton, Celia. “Nobel Prize Winner Tu Youyou Helped by Ancient Chinese Remedy.” British
  • Broadcasting Corporation. British Broadcasting Corporation, 6 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
  • Phillips, Tom. “Tu Youyou: How Mao’s Challenge to Malaria Pioneer Led to Nobel Prize.” The
  • Guardian. The Guardian, 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Malaria. Retrieved from
  • http://www.cdc.gov/malaria