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Tu Youyou: Traditional Chinese Medicine

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week it's going to be about a scientist who merged traditional and modern medicine to save lives – Tu Youyou.


Tu Youyou was born in 1930 in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China. Her family saw education as very important, making sure that Youyou and her four brothers would attend the best schools. Youyou went to Ningbo Chongde Primary School, Ningbo Maoxi Primary School, Ningbo Qizheng Middle School, Ningbo Yongjiang Girls’ School, Ningbo Xiaoshi High School, and Ningbo High School, all of which were private schools.

At the age of 16, Youyou contracted tuberculosis, leaving her unable to study for 2 years. She came back to health, finished high school, and influenced by her own experience with illness, decided to study medicine. In 1955, Youyou graduated from the Beijing Medical University School of Pharmacy and started working at the Institute of Materia Medica at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She acquired knowledge of both Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine and this combination proved to be very useful later in her career.

During the Vietnam War, many soldiers suffered from malaria resistant to chloroquine, and finding a new cure was necessary. This became the objective of the secret Project 523. In 1969, 2 years after its initiation, Youyou was made the leader of the Project 523 research group at her institute.

Scientists all over the world had already tested over 200 thousand compounds with no success. China was on a similar path until Youyou came up with the idea of utilizing knowledge from traditional Chinese medicine. She visited many of its practitioners, gathered loads of information, recipes, and herbs, and together with her team, she found that one herb was especially effective – sweet wormwood. It proved to be useful after Youyou's thorough study of the ancient recipes, where she found out that it had to be steeped in cold water, otherwise, the extract would be ineffective. Youyou's team named the discovered active compound artemisinin, and alongside studying its chemical structure, they accidentally synthesized dihydroartemisinin, a bioactive artemisinin metabolite.

Because of China's restriction, Youyou initially couldn't publish her findings. She was finally able to do so in the early 1980s and in the early 2000s, WHO recommended artemisinin as the first-line treatment for malaria. In 2015, Youyou received the Nobel Prize in Medicine together with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura.

Tu Youyou's contribution to medicine made her the first Chinese woman to win the Nobel Prize. This achievement cost her a lot of time and effort, resulting in her two daughters having to be raised by teachers and Youyou's parents. She made this great sacrifice in order to save hundreds of millions of lives all around the world.






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