Nobel Prize for Chinese medical researcher: ‘Mao era not easy to evaluate’

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Prof. Dr. Marc Andre Matten (Bild: Jacob Krüger)

One of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is the Chinese researcher Youyou Tu. FAU sinologist Prof. Dr. Marc Matten explains why there are two reasons that this is particularly remarkable.

This year the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three medical researchers for their work on parasitic diseases: Irish biochemist William Campbell, who is based in the USA, Japanese chemist and pharmacologist Satoshi Omura, and Chinese pharmacologist Youyou Tu. This is the first time that a Chinese researcher has won a Nobel Prize in the field of medicine.

Youyou Tu, born in 1930, was awarded the prize for her work on finding a cure for malaria. Between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, she developed a method for extracting the active agent artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant. Rather than boil the plant – a method often used in traditional Chinese medicine – Tu extracted the active agent using cold water and was soon able to use it to successfully treat patients with malaria. Tu got the idea of extracting the active agent with cold water from the writings of the Chinese Daoist and Alchemist Ge Hong (around 280–340) when she studied his handbook on treating acute diseases during her work on Project 523, a secret military project that was conducted during the Vietnam War. The handbook says to take a handful of sweet wormwood, soak it in twice the amount of water, squeeze it out and drink the juice. Tu developed her method on the basis of this instruction, contained in a sentence that is just 15 characters long.

There are two elements to this story that are rather ironic. Firstly, the prize has been awarded to a woman who is not as well established in the Chinese academic world as her colleagues – and her prize-winning work is not a result of the state-funded research that is currently being expanded rapidly. In fact, Youyou Tu is sometimes called the ‘professor of the three nos’ – no doctoral degree, no experience studying or researching abroad, and not a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Secondly, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for an achievement that was made in an era of China’s history that until recently has often been considered anti-scientific and anti-intellectual – the time of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Tu’s case – along with many others, some more and some less well known – shows that, despite the official philosophy and politics of science at the time, the Mao era is not so easy to evaluate if we do not wish to do the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the time a disservice. Demonstrating this is the goal of the current research project Science, Modernity and Political Behavior in Contemporary China (1949–1978) at the Chair of Chinese Studies, which is being supported by third-party funding.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Marc A. Matten
Phone: +49 9131 8523094