History of Scientific Women

Main achievements: Discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin in Project 523.

Tu Youyou (born 30 December 1930), is a Chinese medical scientist, pharmaceutical chemist, and educator best known for discovering artemisinin (also known as Qinghaosu) and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria, which saved millions of lives. The discovery of artemisinin and its treatment of malaria is regarded as a significant breakthrough of tropical medicine in the 20th Century and health improvement for people of tropical developing countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America. For her work, Tu received the 2011 Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine and the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Tu was the first native Chinese to win Lasker award in history who was educated in China and whose work was carried out within China. Tu carried on her work in the 1960s and 70s during China's Cultural Revolution, when scientists were one of the nine black categories in Chinese society according to Mao's theory. But China's ally, North Vietnam, was at war with South Vietnam and the U.S. Malaria was a major cause of death, and evolving resistance to chloroquine. Malaria was also a major cause of death in China's southern provinces including Hainan, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong. Mao Zedong set up a secret drug discovery project, named Project 523 after its starting date, 23 May 1967. Scientists worldwide had screened over 240,000 compounds without success.

In 1969, Tu, then 39 years old, had an idea of screening Chinese herbs. She first investigated the Chinese medical classics in history, visited old practitioners of Chinese medicine all over the country on her own, and made a notebook namely A Collection of "Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria". Her notebook summarized 640 prescriptions. Her team also screened over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes and made 380 herbal extracts, which were tested on mice. One compound was effective, sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), which was used for "intermittent fevers," a hallmark of malaria. As Tu also presented at the project seminar, its preparation was described in a 1,600-year old text, in a recipe titled, "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve." At first, it didn't work, because they extracted it with boiling water, the same as recorded in the classic. Tu suggested the hot water had already damaged the active ingredient in the plant, therefore proposed a method using low-temperature ether to extract the effective compound instead. The animal tests showed it was completely effective in mice and monkeys. Furthermore, Tu volunteered to be the first human subject. "As head of this research group, I had the responsibility," she said. It was safe, so she conducted successful clinical trials with human patients.

Her work was published anonymously in 1977. "It is scientists' responsibility to continue fighting for the healthcare of all humans," said Tu. "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." Tu was born in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China on 30 December 1930. In 1951, she matriculated at Peking University School of Medicine (In 1952, the Medical School became independent as Beijing Medical College, later renamed Beijing Medical University in 1985. On 3 April 2000, Beijing Medical University was merged with Peking University and is now known as Peking University Health Science Center). Tu 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 (now named as China Academy of Chinese Medical Research) in Beijing after graduation. She was promoted to a researcher in 1980 only after the Chinese economic reform, and in 2001 promoted to academic advisor for doctorate candidates. Currently she is the Chief Scientist in the Academy. As of 2007, her office is in an old apartment building in Dongcheng District, Beijing. Before 2011, Tu had been obscure for decades, and is described as "almost completely forgotten by people". Tu is regarded as the Professor of Three Nos – no postgraduate degree (there was no postgraduate education in then-China), no study or research experience abroad, and not a member of any Chinese national academies, i.e. Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Up until 1979, there were no postgraduate degree programs in China, and China was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Tu is now regarded as a representative figure of the first generation Chinese medical workers since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Source: Wikipedia