First Chinese Woman Accepts Lasker Prize for Lifelong Malaria Research


Tu Youyou with Lasker president and chairman

Dr. Tu Youyou at 2011 Lasker Awards ceremony, with Maria C. Freire, Lasker Foundation President (left) and Alfred Sommer, MHS Lasker Foundation Chairman (right). Photo: ©Stephanie Badini

Dr. Tu Youyou tottered to her hotel bed with her husband, Li Tingzhao, holding her arms. Her 45-year-old daughter, Min Li,  helped her take off her coat before Tu lay down. She was too tired to speak a word for ten minutes.

“I’m 81 years old. I am too old to bear this,” Dr. Tu mumbled. One day before becoming the first female Chinese researcher ever to accept a prestigious Lasker Award – considered only a step away from a Nobel Prize – she had just returned to her cozy room at the Pierre Hotel after interviews with reporters from The New York Times and New Scientist magazine, which lasted for four and a half hours in the cold guest hall in the hotel. Without any break since 10 a.m., Tu did not have time to take lunch. All she had was half of a a small Dunkin’ Donuts tuna sandwich her daughter bought her at the end of the second interview.

The frail scientist, who blinked nervously behind her glasses, had no time to order room service. She ran a shaking hand through her dyed-black hair, as she asked her family how good she had been in the interviews. Her lips trembled as she drank water.

Tu was in Manhattan last month to receive the Clinical Medical Research Award, for the 1971 discovery of an anti-malaria drug therapy the World Health Organization categorizes as “Essential Medicine.” The Lasker Awards jury singled out her discovery, a drug called artemisinin (Qinghaosu) – made from sweet wormwood – for saving millions of lives globally, especially in developing countries. The drug was a major breakthrough for three reasons: it worked fast, had few side effects, and had a high success rate.

But it’s not the final solution. Prof. James C. McCann, a historian at Boston University who has studied malaria in Africa for years and who just came back from Ethiopia, said, “Dr. Tu’s discovery of artemisinin is very, very important to African people.” However, he added, we should anticipate emerging resistance to artemisinin. The history and origin of malaria worldwide is still unverifiable, yet in Africa, especially in dry areas, malaria outbreaks occur every five to eight years, mainly killing children who have no immunity, according to McCann. He also pointed out that Dr. Tu’s drug was expensive: “It costs about thirty to fifty dollars a day without health care or UN’s funding. If I’m paying myself, I won’t buy it.”

For most of her life, Tu conducted her research in relative obscurity. Not many Chinese, other than Tu’s colleagues in the China Academy of Chinese Medical Research had heard of the name ”Tu Youyou” before the Lasker Awards committee announced this year’s winners in early September, according to Dr. Liao Fulong, a colleague who accompanied Dr. Tu to the United States. Dr. Liao said that Tu came here on a personal visitor’s visa to see her daughter in North Carolina, rather than a public business visa for the awards, because Tu wanted to keep a low profile.

The award acknowledges four decades of work. In 1969, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong initiated a secretive military project called “523” to create anti-malaria drugs for the army during Vietnam War. Appointed as the project’s leader, Tu and her three main fellows were ordered to remain anonymous and to be known only as “Xiezuozu” (Collaborative Group), in all relevant publications during the Culture Revolution from 1969 to 1979.

During that time,  Tu selected and studied more than 640 kinds of herbal medicines found in 2,000 therapies, and conducted 190 failed experiments. “I tested all the drugs with my own body. My health was ruined. I lost all my teeth and I was always sick,” she recalled. She had little time for family.

“Ma, how could you bare to leave me to my grandparents when I was only three?” teased Li, Tu’s younger daughter.

“I had to focus on my duty,” her mother replied. “Look at me. I lost all my teeth after the research. We had no chemical protection at that time. How could I possibly take care of you?”

On Oct. 4, 1971, inspired by a line from a medical prescription written approximately 1,700 years ago in China’s Jin Dynasty, Tu finally created artemisinin in her 191th trial, she said.

Tu does not feel she received the recognition she deserved. “I only won the second prize for China’s National Science and Technology Invention Awards in 1981. It provided a 5,000 Yuan (about $500 at that time) scholarship,” she said, “but all of a sudden, five other research institutions came to split the money. I never worked with some of them. As the chief researcher, all I got was 200 Yuan (approximately $20).” Tu said that the final attribution list contained 40 institutions.

“People in China call me “Three-No-Scientist:” no doctoral degree, no overseas experience, and no title from Liangyuan (the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering),” Dr. Tu said, frowning. “Yet sometimes one can do better without these.”

With her husband’s help, Dr. Tu slowly got out of bed. She shuffled to the mirror and asked for an extra sweater. “It’s too cold in the hall,” she said.

“My husband and I hate to go out, but I have to come this time for the Lasker. I want some people to respect the science, respect the truth.” said Tu, before she left for the next interview. “And I want to leave something after my life.”