Tu Youyou will not only be remembered by history as the first Chinese woman to have been awarded the Nobel prize, but also for her discovery of artemisinin, a malaria-fighting drug that has prevented the death of millions. Her success was not an easy feat, but it has inspired many scientists and put the significance of traditional Chinese medicine in the global spotlight. What really fascinates me is that Tu has made such an incredible impact without having a PhD, medical degree, or training abroad.
Tu was inspired to pursue medicine after her brush with a serious infectious disease when she contracted and recovered from tuberculosis at 16. She and her government unit team pored over Chinese medical texts from ancient dynasties before extracting the world-changing compound from sweet wormwood, a substance used to treat malaria in China in 400 AD. It had been years of hard work and sacrificing precious time with her young children. After testing it on herself in 1971, the first 21 patients using artemisinin all recovered from malaria. Her findings were published in English in 1979 and recommended universally by WHO in 2001. Tu describes it as “a gift from traditional Chinese medicine to the world.”