Tu Youyou is one of the very few people who can say they have saved millions of lives. Tu was part of a team analyzing traditional Chinese medicines as possible treatments for malaria. She found an herb used in ancient malaria remedies: sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua. It is one thing to discover a folk remedy and quite another to find its medically active agent and turn it into a modern drug. When boiling failed to extract an effective antimalaria ingredient from the herb, it was Tu who remembered a millennium-old recipe she’d copied in her notebook—one that called for soaking, not boiling, the herb. The ancient recipe turned out to hold the key: Tu found that the active compound, now known as artemisinin, is destroyed by high heat. And after she succeeded in extracting this chemical from the wormwood, her first test subject was herself. In 2015, Tu became the first woman in China to win a Nobel Prize. The World Health Organization has named artemisinin, now mankind’s main line of defense against malaria, an essential drug. Although malaria has been eliminated in the U.S., it causes hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide each year. Tu’s discovery is a mainstay in the efforts to save those lives.
Frieden is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention