Tu Youyou: how Mao’s challenge to malaria pioneer led to Nobel prize

Tasked in 1969 with finding a cure for malaria, China’s first laureate in medicine looked to nature and traditional medicine

It was 21 January 1969 when Mao Zedong gave a 39-year-old scientist from Zhejiang province the challenge of her life.

China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, with universities and schools across the country shutting their doors as the red guards ran riot.

Amid all the madness Tu Youyou, then a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, was handed a daunting mission: to find a drug that would cure malaria.

“The work was the top priority so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” the famously understated scientist later recalled.

On Monday, nearly half a century after her life-changing quest began, Tu was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for her role in creating a drug that helped slash malaria mortality rates in Africa and Asia, saving millions of lives.

Yet for all her achievements, Tu, who is now 84, remains a little known figure, even in her native China where she had drifted into obscurity despite the magnitude of her discovery.

As news of Tu’s victory reached her native land on Monday night, one fan wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter: “Recognised at last!”

Tu was born in Ningbo, a port city about 140 miles south of Shanghai, in 1930. She was named after a verse in the Book of Songs, a collection of ancient Chinese poetry that is believed to have been compiled by Confucius.

Tu working with Prof Lou Zhicen in the 1950s.
Tu working with Prof Lou Zhicen in the 1950s. Photograph: AP

Tu chose medicine, not philosophy, when she left Zhejiang and headed to China’s capital to further her studies in 1951.

She enrolled at the Peking University School of Medicine and graduated from its Department of Pharmacology four years later.

From university Tu moved to the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She married Li Tingzhao, a former school classmate and factory worker with whom she would have two daughters, and settled down in Beijing.

Then, in 1969, everything changed when Tu was recruited to a medical research project so secret it was known only as “523”.

Watch the announcement: Who are the Nobel Prize for medicine winners?

The unit had been created two years earlier – on 23 May 1967 – on the orders of Chairman Mao, who hoped to find a way of halting the spread of malaria, a disease that was decimating North Vietnamese troops fighting in the jungles to China’s south-west.

Tu was tasked with searching in nature for a new malaria treatment and was sent to Hainan, a tropical island off China’s southern coast that has long struggled with its blight.

There, in the sweltering rainforests of southern China, Tu witnessed up close the mosquito-borne disease’s devastating toll on the human body.

“I saw a lot of children who were in the latest stages of malaria,” she told New Scientist in 2011. “Those kids died very quickly.”

Tu was given the prestigious Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award in 2011.
Tu was given the prestigious Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award in 2011. Photograph: Wang Chengyun/Xinhua Press/Corbis

But it was in ancient Chinese manuscripts that Tu found the key to beating the disease. Back in Beijing, Tu and her team scoured books about traditional Chinese medicine for leads on substances that might help them defeat malaria.

In a hundreds-of-years-old text, The Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies by Ge Hong of the East Jin Dynasty, they found mention of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) – or in Chinese qinghao – being used to treat malaria.

Tu’s team put it to the test. At first the results were mixed but after much persistence the researchers identified an active compound in the plant that attacked malaria-causing parasites in the blood and would later become known as artemisinin.

Not content with identifying the remedy, which thus far had only been tested on animals, Tu took it upon herself to test it. “As the head of this research group, I had the responsibility,” she said.

The treatment worked and was proved safe for humans. Along with insecticide-treated bed nets, artemisinin became a crucial tool in the fight against malaria in Africa and Asia. Experts credit the discovery with saving millions of lives.

Recognition came late in life to Tu, a famously modest woman who once remembered the moment of her discovery by saying: “Of course that was a really happy moment in my career as a researcher.”

Only in 2011, when Tu was awarded the prestigious Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award, did Communist party officials in her home town begin scrambling to locate and preserve the scientist’s childhood home.

Tu photographed in the 1980s. Not content with identifying the remedy, Tu took it upon herself to test it.
Tu photographed in the 1980s. Not content with identifying the remedy, Tu took it upon herself to test it. Photograph: Yang Wumin/AP

Asked for her thoughts on that award, Tu simply replied: “I am too old to bear this.”

Speaking to China’s Global People magazine in 2007, Tu insisted she had not given her life to medicine in order to make headlines. “I do not want fame. In our day, no essay was published under the author’s byline,” she said.

Showing the magazine’s journalists around her modest home in east Beijing, the elderly scientist pointed to cupboards and drawers stuffed full with lab records and correspondence chronicling her hunt for a cure for malaria.

“I didn’t keep all this stuff deliberately,” Tu told her guests. “It’s a habit of scientific work.”

Additional reporting by Luna Lin

  • This article was amended on 6 October 2015 to correct the rendering of Tu YouYou’s name


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