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Long, difficult journey to recognition

Dr Tu Youyou being congratulated by other attendees for her Nobel win at a symposium organised by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission and other medical departments in Beijing last Thursday.
Dr Tu Youyou being congratulated by other attendees for her Nobel win at a symposium organised by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission and other medical departments in Beijing last Thursday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Chinese scientist's Nobel win follows years of secret research, self-sacrifice and criticism

The Chinese term for crisis, wei ji, contains the characters meaning danger and opportunity, a combination that best describes Dr Tu Youyou's long journey to becoming China's first Nobel laureate for medicine.

Dr Tu, now 84, was a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, which saw her husband among the tens of thousands purged. Amid the chaos, she was instructed in January 1969 to spearhead China's malaria research, being the top expert in the field.

The orders came directly from chairman Mao Zedong, who had set up a covert research unit in 1967 to find a cure for malaria as it was killing Chinese troops fighting in then North Vietnam against the United States. Malaria was also killing many in south China.

COLLECTIVE HONOUR

(I have) no special feelings. A little bit unexpected - but not so unexpected. Because this is an honour not only for myself, but also for all Chinese scientists. We all did decades of research together.

DR TU YOUYOU, who shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two scientists from Japan and Ireland

Her work led to the discovery of artemisinin - a drug that is now part of standard anti-malarial regimens and credited for having saved millions of lives in Africa and Asia.

"I found out I won when I was watching television this evening. (I have) no special feelings. A little bit unexpected - but not so unexpected," said Dr Tu, who shares the Nobel prize with two scientists from Japan and Ireland.

"Because this is an honour not only for myself, but also for all Chinese scientists. We all did decades of research together," she explained when asked why she was not so surprised, according to the Qianjiang Evening News last Monday.

China has claimed her win as its own. Premier Li Keqiang described it as "an expression of the prosperity and progress of Chinese science, and of the huge contribution that Chinese traditional medicine and pharmacy has made to the health of humankind". State media outlets have fawned over Dr Tu, with the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily publishing the story of her award on its front page. Local officials also pledged to preserve her former home in coastal Zhejiang province's Ningbo city.

The national attention is unfamiliar to Dr Tu, who was little known in her country until her Nobel win last Monday. There was little publicity in the lead-up, unlike in 2012 when novelist Mo Yan clinched the Nobel for literature, also China's first.

To those who know about her, Dr Tu has been described as a "three withouts" scientist. She has no doctoral degree, overseas training and experience, nor does she hold the prestigious title of academician in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Born in 1930, Dr Tu was named after a verse in the Book Of Songs, a collection of ancient Chinese poetry said to have been compiled by Confucius. She left for Beijing in 1951 to enrol at the Peking University School of Medicine and graduated from its department of pharmacology.

Dr Tu, who married her former classmate Li Tingzhao and bore him two daughters, later moved to the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine where she took a training course in traditional Chinese medicine, which would prove to be a life-changing move.

As malaria drugs at the time began to lose its effectiveness and the search for a new cure through tests of synthetic compounds drew a blank, China placed its hope on traditional Chinese medicine.

Dr Tu's background in both Western and Chinese medicine led her to be picked to join the secret research unit Project 523, the number referring to May 23, when it was set up.

She was sent to southern Hainan province, long plagued by malaria, to observe the effects of the disease.

As her husband had been banished to the countryside, she left her older daughter in the care of a Beijing nursery and sent the younger one to the grandparents in Ningbo.

When she returned six months later, her older girl found her unfamiliar and hid from the "strange woman" who came to take her home. But Dr Tu took it in her stride. "The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life," she said.

But it was not only that, because Dr Tu was also willing to sacrifice her own life, if necessary.

Her team had found mention of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) - or qinghao in Chinese - being used to treat malaria in The Manual Of Clinical Practice And Emergency Remedies during the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD317 to 420).

It identified an active compound in the plant that attacked malaria- causing parasites. After the compound - later known as artemisinin - showed promising results in mice and monkeys, Dr Tu volunteered to be the first human to test it.

"As the head of the research group, I had the responsibility," she told the Chinese media.

Recognition came late for Dr Tu.

The first paper about the anti-malarial drug was published anonymously in 1977 as part of the socialist culture of putting the collective ahead of the individual.

It took another three decades before she was recognised as the brains behind the cure for malaria, which still sees about 200 million cases and 600,000 deaths a year.

She won the prestigious Lasker prize for medical research in 2011.

Recognition also came at a price.

In 2009, Dr Tu published an autobiography about her scientific career but was attacked for ignoring the contributions made by her colleagues. Others said that researchers had already targeted the compounds in sweet wormwood before she did.

Her win last week also sparked a debate over whether it represents an achievement of China's science and technology and also over the selection process of academicians.

Dr Tu's husband told reporters the Nobel laureate, who is in poor health and has diabetes, was "very tired" from all the attention.

Dr Tu may not relish the public spotlight but she used the opportunity to offer some advice to budding scientists.

Citing how she came up with the new anti-malarial drug, she told reporters last week: "This shows that as a scientist, we need an innovative spirit to discover new things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'Long, difficult journey to recognition'. Print Edition | Subscribe