She saved a million lives with an ancient book

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As more girls opt for science, one woman is an inspiration

A FATHER WAS SITTING in his reading chair, thinking about a name for his newborn daughter.

At his home in Ningbo, in the Chinese eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, he read a line in a poem about the whispery yelping sound that the deer of the forest make:

The deer make a yowuu-yowuu sound 

as they eat the wild hao plants.

The man, whose name was Tu, decided that he liked that sound, and named his daughter Youyou.

She grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, during a time of political tensions, with threats of invasions never far away.

Still, Youyou worked hard and did well at her school in Ningbo, China, and went on to study pharmaceuticals and Chinese traditional medicine at university.

But then a variety of problems came back in the 1960s with society in a state of political upheaval. Looking back on that period from later in her life, she felt that there was no future for scientists.

So she was surprised to get a rather secretive invitation.

The leadership needed scientists because they wanted to find a cure for a killer disease, a strain of malaria, which was killing soldiers.

The then leader, Mao Zedong, set up a top secret department called Project 523: the number came from the date the operation started: May 23, 1967.

Tu Youyou was commissioned to find a cure for an incurable strain of a deadly disease.

It seemed an impossible task. By that stage, scientists around the world had tested more than 240,000 compounds and none of them worked.

The global scientific community had been working on it for years, with no results.

Tu, who had come from a book-loving family, had an idea – instead of going to the lab, which had run out of ideas, she went to the library.

She read ancient texts which featured traditional wisdom. She found a 1,600-year-old recipe with a curious title: “Emergency Prescriptions To Keep Up One’s Sleeve.” 

It called for the use of a Chinese herb called Qing Hao.

[The secret was hidden in this plant, artemisia annua: Picture by Kristian Peters/ CC]

But Youyou checked the research lists. Modern scientists around the world had already extracted that one by boiling the plant and tested the residue – it had failed, just like all the others.

Yet something told her to keep reading.

Then, in another ancient book, in a paragraph written in 340 AD, she read that there was a certain oddity about the hao plant. The essence of the plant can be extracted in cold water only. Hot water kills the active ingredient, the ancient sage wrote.

She tried again with cold water – and this time it worked, killing the malaria parasite quickly.

But new medicines always needed to be tested. Could it be harmful to people? She needed a human volunteer to take it

She chose herself.

Tu Youyou’s medicine worked remarkably well, and has now saved literally millions of lives around the world.

Her achievement was celebrated worldwide when she was given the Nobel Prize.

[Nobel winner: Picture by Bengt Nyman, CC]

But when she reflected on her life, she noticed something curious.

She picked up her father’s book of poetry and remembered that his favorite line mentioned the sound that had given her her name.

But the same poem mentioned something else – the wild hao plant that the deer were eating.

The deer make a yowuu-yowuu sound 

as they eat the wild hao plants.

It was the same plant that would make her famous.

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