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Tu Youyou, Chemist & Nobel Prize Winner for Malaria Treatment

Tu Youyou was born on December 30, 1930 in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China. She had four brothers, and her father worked in a bank while her mother was a housewife. Youyou was educated in private schools; however, at the age of 15, she had to take a 2-year break when she contracted tuberculosis. After her recovery, she was determined to pursue a career in medicine. In 1951, she completed her schooling at Ningbo Highschool. By the time she was 20, she passed the entrance exam which allowed her to enroll at Peking University Medical School’s Department of Pharmacology.

Youyou’s choice to learn pharmacy was driven by her desire to seek new medicine for patients. In a pharmacognosy (study of plants and natural sources to be used in medicine) course, Professor Lou Zhicen taught Youyou the knowledge of medical plants and how to classify these plants, and in a phytochemistry (study of phytochemicals or chemicals derived from plants) course, Professor Lin Qishou gave a comprehensive introduction as well as hands-on training on how to extract ingredients from plants. These courses taught Youyou the scientific insights she needed to understand how these medical herbs work.

After her graduation from university in 1955, Youyou was assigned a job at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica. Youyou’s research and first publication was on an herb called Lobelia chinensis, a commonly prescribed herb for schistosomiasis, an infection by parasitic flatworms called schistosomes known as “snail fever.” Youyou completed another study on stellaria root used to reduce fever then started working full-time in a training program on Chinese Medical Theory. In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Youyou was assigned to lead Project 523, which was a treatment to fight malaria. The Chinese government started the project after numerous soldiers died from the disease. Youyou continued to study artemisinin (the antimalarial drug) and developed a second compound to combat the disease.

In 2011, Youyou was awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her work on the artemisinin treatment for malaria, and in 2015, Youyou received the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine and Warren Alpert Foundation Prize awards. She is currently the Chief Scientist at China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine and married to Li Tingzhao, a metallurgical engineer, and together they have two daughters. Tu Youyou is an inspiring chemist to women interested in pharmaceutical sciences. Her hard work and dedication developed a medication to treat malaria, which saved millions of lives in South China, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America.

by Camryn Stallings


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