HerStory March: Tu Youyou

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

This month, our colorway is a delightfully springy homage to the sweet wormwood plant, and our honoree is a real trailblazer who never forgot the importance of looking back while working for the future. 

Tu Youyou’s path to her place in HerStory almost reads like a novel of intrigue. A young medical researcher gets recruited into a secret cabal of scientists hell-bent on discovering a cure for malaria, to give the communist North Vietnamese army a better chance at winning the war they are embroiled in. Relying on traditional Chinese medicine and texts from hundreds of years ago, Tu and her team, known only as Mission 523, discover mentions of “sweet wormword,”or qinghao, which, once tested, proved to be an effective treatment of the disease that was wreaking havoc both on rainforest populations and on the NVA army. Decades pass, many lives are saved, the researcher lives in quiet obscurity, until, in the 2000s, the scientific community “rediscovers” her, and begins to recognize her remarkable achievement and contribution to medicine.

Tu Youyou was born, raised, worked, and did all of her research in China. Most of her work was done during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1960s and 1970s), a time when science was not held in high regard. In fact, scientists (and all intellectuals) were considered to be of a societal caste only one step above beggars, which were abhorred. They were known as the Stinking old Ninth, as in the ninth caste. But the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, understood the significance and importance of science, and when asked by the North Vietnamese government to help figure out a way to treat the malaria that was decimating their soldiers, he put together a secret task force, known as Mission 523 (it was formed on May 23rd, 1967, hence the name 523). 

Tu was quickly recruited. She was a research scientist, a pharmaceutical chemist who focused on traditional and herbal medicines. She spearheaded the effort to comb through the texts and visit herbalists all over China, testing herbs that ancient herbalists used to combat traditional symptoms of malaria. Hundreds of potential malarial treatments later, the benefits of qinghao were discovered. Through lots of trial and error (a deeper read of the ancient texts revealed that the herb needed to be steeped in cool, not boiling water, for instance), Artemisia annua was shown to be completely effective in animal studies. Once those primary trials were underway, she volunteered to test the compound on herself before moving on to human trials. The discovery of artemisinin has been instrumental in saving many lives that would once have been lost to malaria. 

In 2011, Tu was awarded the prestigious Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award, and in 2015, she won the Nobel Prize in Medicine with two other researchers. As an interesting aside, in China, Tu is known as the “three noes” Nobel winner: no medical degree, no doctorate, and she’s never worked overseas.

A serious and modest woman (when she won the Lasker award, her response was “I am too old to bear this”), her work was initially published anonymously. It finally reached international audiences in the early 1980s, and in the early 2000s, the World Health Organization recommended the use of artemisinin-based combination drug therapies as first-line treatment for malaria. 

Her personal life took a backseat to her professional one. Her husband was “sent to the countryside” (read: to a labor camp) to work during the Cultural Revolution, and she had to leave her 4-year-old daughter at a local nursery for 6 months while she immersed herself in research. When she and her daughter were finally reunited, the little girl didn’t recognize her mother. “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” she said later. A woman of few words, she’s known for her passion for work and her drive, and there are millions of people alive today who wholeheartedly appreciate her sacrifice. Thanks, Tu Youyou, for being you.

Remember to share your HerStory projects with us. Tag me @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our new Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/572482266432576), where folks have been sharing their HerStory projects so far. Thanks so much for taking this STEM-y journey with us – we have been thoroughly enjoying learning so much about these amazing and unsung women, and are just as excited about what’s coming up for the rest of the year!