84-year old Chinese scientist Tu Youyou received Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in Stockholm on December 10, 2015.

She is the first Chinese scientist from the mainland and the first Chinese woman from anywhere in the world to receive a genuine Nobel Prize.

A Wonder Drug on Malaria

Lupus erythematosus is a nasty skin disease, which not only ruins a patient’s appearance by causing red patches on the face but often damages the connective tissue in the internal organs.

So far there is no magic solution to cure the disease and the goal of treatment is just to control symptoms.

But here came mighty Tu Youyou from China.

Tu Youyou searched Chinese medicine classics in her quest to develop novel malaria therapies and selected the herb artemisia annua to be purified into a drug against malaria.

At the awesomely advanced age of 85, Tu Youyou led her research team at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Science and successfully developed a drug for Lupus erythematosus.

To this day, the new drug has saved millions of lives, mainly in Africa where most people have no access to the expensive while ineffective malaria drugs manufactured by the big drug companies in the West.

Her Inspiration: Daoism and Chinese Medicine

Chinese Nobel laureate Tu Youyou: Malaria drug is a gift from traditional Chinese medicine to all the people in the world

Tu Youyou’s inspiration for the malaria wonder drug mainly came from Ge Hong (葛洪 284 – 363), a Chinese Daoist lived during post Three Kingdoms Period, best known for his Daoist cultivation masterpiece “Baopuzi (Man to Embrace Simplicity 抱朴子)”.

Like all the best Daoists were and are, Ge Hong was a great Chinese medicine doctor and produced large volumes of medical books, including the one titled Small Books on Emergency Aid (肘后备急方), which collects a great number of drugs and treatments for various common illnesses. It is from this book Tu Youyou found sweet wormwood, also known as artemisia annua.

Apart from malaria remedy, the Small Book also describes the danger and infectiousness of smallpox, explains what the symptoms of tuberculosis are and how it is spread between people and suggests smearing the brain tissue from dead rabies on the bite wound which is a method proven to be very effective to save victims’ lives.

A Deep Roots in Classic Chinese Culture

Tu Youyou with her teacher in the early 1950s 

Tu Youyou was a Ningbo native of Zhejiang province near Shanghai. Her father Mr Tu picked two characters You You (呦呦) from the “Classic of Poetry” as her name.

You You: with pleased sounds the deer call to one another to enjoy the herb in the field (呦呦鹿鸣,食野之蒿). The herb in question is no other but artemisia annua.

So literally, Tu Youyou’s name can be translated as Tu Artemisia. And 40 years after Tu Artemisia was born, artemisia annua had turned into the wonder drug Artemisinin by Tu Artemisia.

The pond is in the shape of Eight Trigrams.

This is a retreat in Mt Luofu (罗浮山) in Guangdong province where Tu Youyou’s spiritual mentor Daoist Ge Hong spent his final years. It is here he wrote the famous Small Book about Emergency Aid that has saved 100 million lives after being read by Tu Youyou.

“I believe Chinese medicine will help us win the battles against various diseases that threaten people’s lives all over the world,” said Tu Youyou.

Although her health is failing due to her noble habit of using her own body to test the new drugs, she still worked on the frontline in medical research. Having successfully eradicated malaria from African nation Comoros, now her team sets their sights on Kenya.

Great Potential in Cancer Treatment

Wormwood also has great potential in the treatment of cancer.

The current chemotherapy is in a way very much like sending foreign troops to bombard a country in a civil war, which only fuels cancer to grow faster and kills the patient more quickly than if they had gone without.

Two decades after Tu Youyou and her team produced an antimalarial drug, in 1995 Henry Lai and his colleagues from the University of Washington discovered that artemisinin can also selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.

Cancer cells and bacteria accumulate iron far more than normal cells do. Artemisinin works in the presence of iron to create free radicals to kill cells that hoard iron at a rate of 12,000 cancer cells for every healthy cell, according to studies published in Life Sciences, Cancer Letters and Anticancer Drugs.

So far, this non-toxic remedy has been used on over 4000 patients with cancer types ranging from leukaemia, colon cancer, melanoma cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, primary central nervous system lymphoma and kidney cancer.

“Artemisinin is about 100 times more selective in killing cancer cells as opposed to normal cells. Artemisinin is 34,000 times more potent in killing the cancer cells as opposed to their normal cousins,” said Henry Lai. “We call it a Trojan horse because the cancer cell recognizes transferrin as a natural, harmless protein. So the cell picks up the compound without knowing that a bomb (artemisinin) is hidden inside.”

The wormwood extract (artemisinin) was used centuries ago in China for healing purposes. The treatment became lost over time and has now been rediscovered thanks to an ancient manuscript.

Tu Youyou at home in 2015 at the age of 85

Tu Youyou was named on 22 October 2019 as 1 of 3 scientists to receive UNESCO-Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences for her contribution to the worldwide effort in the eradication of infectious diseases.


Oct 8, 2015
Rodney K

Congratulations. And congratulations to Chinese medicine.

All Things Chinese
But now in China, Chinese medicine is struggling to survive in a society dominated by multinational drug companies.

Chairman Mao, the founder of the PRC, was a passionate promoter of traditional Chinese medicine. However, as the big drug companies have gained an increasingly dominant market position in China, Chinese medicine has been deliberately suppressed by the allies of the multinationals in the Chinese government and the community.

Today many Chinese in the commanding positions, whether in politics or academics or arts, don’t seem to have the capacity to recognize or reject a course according to its own merit but mindlessly follow the lead of the West.

Rodney K
Yes, it is the same everywhere. Folk remedies will not die out, however. Decades ago people lost faith in science-based medicine and folk remedies became popular again. But that lasted only a few years.

If the remedy is not based on science, doctors will not prescribe it.

All Things Chinese
It’s not that Chinese doctors will not prescribe Chinese medicine. They can and they do but they often choose not to. It’s all about the money. Chinese medicine remedies are generally cheap while nowadays Chinese hospitals rely heavily on kickbacks from drug companies to create revenue. And multinational drug companies also work hard to push Chinese medicine out so as to dominate the vast Chinese market.

Chinese medicine is not a folk medicine. It has its own comprehensive and sophisticated theoretical system which is different from and hard to be understood by “science” (in the narrow definition).

There are numerous ways to categorize and analyze ourselves and the world around us. Some mainly focus on tangible subjects that are measurable with physical instruments, such as science; some take a holistic approach to both tangible and intangible existences that sometimes could only be discerned by those whose sense is able to crack into the invisible even abstract realms, which is why it is much harder to train a Chinese medicine doctor, let alone an excellent Chinese medicine doctor. But today, the majority of Chinese medicine doctors in China are trained in classrooms (instead of through one on one coaching) and in laboratories (working with machines instead of with people).

Rodney K
Yes. A lot can be found from folk medicine; there is an element of truth in its findings. Especially from such highly developed folk medicine of the Chinese.

I am sorry. We have been taught that Chinese medicine is a folk medicine and will be preceded by science. But it is a strong part of your culture, a part of your belief system, and should be protected.

All Things Chinese
It is not about which culture it belongs to — it is the asset of the entire humanity. The interest groups in the science or drug sectors should not have an exclusive right to deny people access to this heritage, like what the church once did during the dark ages.

The problem is that multinational drug companies … don’t really want to know there are cheaper and more effective drugs for many diseases …

Daniel Bos
It’s disputable how much she’s actually responsible for the anti-malaria medication. After all, she was a director of one of a couple of teams looking for it.

But I guess that’s how it always works, the top-brass gets all the credit.

All Things Chinese
I believe her contribution is the key, but still, it mainly is the result of a team effort, like most science and technology breakthroughs taken place during the first 30 or 40 years of PRC’s history. 

Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize only rewards individuals but not teams, which is one of the fetal defects with this prize and indeed the most prizes handed out in the West. The traditional Western culture focuses on individualism and competition, not teamwork and cooperation. 

I hope one day the world will have a more appropriate top award for science and tech, which doesn’t associate with certain individuals (say Nobel) or nations (like Sweden) and also recognize collaborated group work.

As for the Nobel Prize in literature and peace, they should be thrown into a garbage bin altogether in my opinion, as they become the political tools for certain factional forces in the world against others. After all, Norway is in no way to be the right country to act as a judge of world affairs.

Kashinath Nawale
Save world human life if this is true

All Things Chinese
It has already been tested on thousands of patients in the US and found it works. The problem is it’s so effective while so cheap, I don’t think the big drug companies like it.

Rain Drops
A great herbal invention that got rediscovered… I wish it really works for the poor ppl who are suffering from cancer…A Hope For Them

So what if big pharmaceutical companies don’t like it…. the point is it should be readily available for patients worldwide to see its effectiveness themselves as I know people keep trying to fight life-threatening cancers with a wide range of drugs other than allopathic like homeopathic herbals, etc…..do u have practicing physicians recommending artemisinin in our country?

All Things Chinese
The research and testing of artemisinin at the moment are mainly done in the US by Washington University …. you know how powerful the big drug companies are in the US. For instance, TPP is a treaty mainly working for their benefit at the expense of patients’ interests and the nation’s solvency.

Rain Drops
I completely understand this misery…..though its really sad

John Roberts
That’s why they’ve created the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that specifically excludes China. It limits the provision of cheap medicines and health care and gives the pharmaceutical and private medical insurance industries the ability to sue governments for providing their people with cheap generic medicines and free or subsidised health care. Hopefully, China will not join it the way it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) just to gain access to western markets and technology.

All Things Chinese
I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with you, John!

Kenneth Rothey
It is to be a great cultural travesty that (as 毛泽东 said) women who hold up half of the sky, be recognized first by American Science for contributions in anti-malaria research before being recognized by her own culture, and after the Nobel committee recognized her great contributions, that China finally allows her to gets on the same stage with the ‘party’

All Things Chinese
Among today’s Chinese intellectuals, a mentality of self-loathing becomes an epidemic. For instance, Liu Xiaobo claimed China should be colonized by the West for at least 400 years and he was awarded a Nobel Peace prize by the Norwegians.

Also, those with a PhD from the US, UK, or other Western countries often receive better opportunities for project funding and promotion from the Chinese government.

This is why Tu Youyou was not a science academician until the Nobel Prize because according to the standards of the Chinese science academy, she’s not good enough: she doesn’t have a Ph.D., she never studied in the West and she believes in Chinese medicine (which displeases the multinational drug companies and their affiliates).

Just think how pathetic it is: nobody even contacted her during the award process, and she only learned she won the top award from the state TV news.

In fact, had she been a man, she might receive even less attention from the government and the local media.

One thing I do agree,  毛泽东 (Chairman Mao) was the biggest contributor to the course of women’s liberation in Chinese history.

BTW. While the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Literature Prize are more or less viewed as politically motivated jokes, Nobel Prizes for science and medicine are highly esteemed in China.

You are welcome to share your thoughts here