Tu Youyou: First Chinese Scientist Who Won Nobel Prize For Malaria Drug Without Formal Medical Education

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In 1972, when Tu Youyou, a scientist from Zhejiang province in China volunteered to be the first human subject for the trial of an anti-malaria drug that she had developed little did she know that she would get a Nobel prize for it one day.  She won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015 but doesn’t have a PhD. She never went to a medical college.

Her drug was inspired by ancient Chinese texts from the Zhou, Qing, and Han Dynasties. Tu is respected in the field of medicine for her courage to test the drug first on herself.

Her Childhood 

Tu Youyou was born in a family of four brothers. She received formal education along with her brothers. All was fine till Tu Youyou got to her teens. Her education was halted at the age of 16 after she was infected with Tuberculosis. She recovered after two years. However, this bedridden phase of her life intrigued her to dive deep into medicine. Her thirst to find a cure for people like her suffering later earned her the prestigious “NOBEL PRIZE” in 2015.

Tu Youyou


“If I could learn and have (medical) skills, I could not only keep myself healthy but also cure many other patients,” Tu wrote in her autobiography.

Tu Youyou completed her graduation in pharmaceutics in 1955 from Beijing Medical College. Identifying and classifying medicinal plants, extracting and analysing their chemical composition was an essential part of her educational journey. Having hands-on experience of western medicine through her graduation, she also opted for a two-year course on traditional Chinese medicine. This later gave her most needed the knowledge to combine both traditional Chinese medicines and modern western methods to find a cure for malaria.

“Mission 523”

Mission 523, was Mao Zedong’s top-secret project initiated to eradicate Malaria. It was named after the date it was launched May 23, 1967. During the Vietnam war, a mass number of soldiers were infected with malaria.

Chloroquine, which was widely used for malaria since it’s development in 1952 failed miserably as the parasite became resistant to the previously used malarial drug. As it took a toll on more lives, the Vietnam government formed an urgent ally with the Chinese ministry to develop a cure for outspread sickness. With this intent “Mission 523” was initiated with Tu Youyou as project head.

An early publication by Tu Youyou © Nobel Prize Museum, Photo: Karl Anderson

Her Intensive research work demanded her to fly to various disease-affected towns and villages. By that time she had been blessed with two daughters both under the age of 5 years, whom she had to leave with her parents.

In conversation with The Guardian, Tu said, “The work was the top priority so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life”

Tu Youyou with one of her mentors, pharmacologist Lou Zhicen, in the 1950s. Lou Zhicen trained her to identify medicinal plants based on their botanical descriptions.

Artemisinin- “ Saviour Of Lives ”

Tu Youyou with the help of her team spotted over 640 plants, tested the extracts of more than 200 plants. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and failure stamped before Tu’s attempt. As a result of tremendous effort, eventually, the extract [Artemisinin] from sweet wormwood plant (Qinghao), Artemisia annua, was found to have a great positive effect. 


The following tests on mice and monkeys proved one hundred per cent success rate. To mention her commitment, Tu first tested it on herself. Consequently, the drug was administered to fellow humans. “As the head of this research group, I had the responsibility,” she explained.

On having a word with the South China Morning Post  Tu quoted “Artemisinin combination treatments, or ACTs, are the first-line drugs for treating malaria recommended by the WHO, and the most important weapon in fighting against malaria worldwide,”

The team presented their findings to the World health organization in 1980. Finally, their drug went on for global usage in the early 2000s. Her invention in later years was extremely helpful when the same intense malaria outbreak happened both in Asian and African continents.


For her remarkable efforts, Tu Youyou was awarded “The Nobel Prize” in Physiology or Medicine for the year 2015. Sharing with two of her counterparts William C.Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for their similar contributions.

The Lasker Foundation also honoured Tu with its Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011, quoting artemisinin as “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.”

While Artemisinin’s groundbreaking effects are still wondered in the Pharma world, Tu went on to unveil a comparatively stronger antimalarial compound – dihydroartemisinin, which is a bioactive artemisinin metabolite. She continues her work as a professor and director of Qinghaosu Research Center at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

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Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.

Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

The need is huge.. We are there.. Need You too !!

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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