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Tu Youyou (1930-): First Chinese woman to ever receive a Nobel prize in Medicine

Tu Youyou was born on December 30, 1930, in China in Ningbo, China. Raised in a family which valued education a lot, she studied in the best schools of her region. At sixteen, she contracted tuberculosis and was forced to stop school for two years. This experience made her develop the desire to work in medical research.

“It is my dream that Chinese medicine will help us conquer life-threatening diseases worldwide and that people across the globe will enjoy its benefits for health promotion.”

In 1955, she graduated from the Pekin University of Medicine in pharmacy, and then studied traditional Chinese medicine from 1959 to 1962. In 1967, while malaria was wreaking havoc in China and killing thousands of soldiers during the Vietnam War, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party set up a secret project to find a cure for malaria, and appointed Tu Youyou as its leader in 1969. These new responsibilities entailed so many sacrifices that the young woman exiled in southern China and distanced herself from her husband and two daughters.

If I could learn and have (medical) skills, I could not only keep myself healthy but also cure many other patients.

For years, she and her team reviewed thousands of traditional Chinese medicines until they discovered a Chinese plant, Artemisia annua, known for reducing the number of parasites in the blood. Research on this plant led her to discover artemisinin, the active ingredient in the fight against malaria, which she then tested on herself in 1972. After about thirty hours, artemisinin showed promising results that allowed to move to trials on real patients. So, research on artemisinin led to the discovery of a cure for malaria and helped saving millions of lives.

Tu Youyou then became research director at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, and the head of the Artemisinin Research and Development Center.

For her research, she was awarded :

  • One of the Ten Science and Technology Achievements in China

  • The National Inventor’s Prize

  • The title of “Eminent Scientist” by the Chinese nation.

  • A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura

Written by Jeyani. S.


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