RSTMH trustee Dr Judy MacArthur Clark interviews Nobel Laureate Professor Tu Youyou

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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

‘What’s in a name?’ In the case of Professor Tu Youyou, her name turned out to be an insight into a future discovery that led to her being awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

At the recent RSTMH Biennial conference Professor Tu’s close colleague, Professor Liao Fulong, told us that the given part of her name ‘Youyou’, decided at birth according to Chinese tradition, translates as ‘a herd of deer when they eat wormwood in the country’ – the Latin name for wormwood being Artemesia anna. So perhaps we have Prof Tu’s parents to thank for one of the 20th century’s greatest discoveries.

I was delighted that Professor Tu agreed to record a special message for the RSTMH conference, about the need to increase our understanding of how artemisinin works, and her deep concern for the growing development of resistance. This message is now available to view online.

Being a vet, I knew about ivermectin, the discovery of which was shared in the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine, although I hadn’t originally heard of Professor Tu Youyou or artemisinin. However, on a visit to China last year I was very fortunate that she agreed to see me at her lab. Afterwards I learnt how special that opportunity was – she rarely meets with anyone outside her close circle.

The conversation was incredible, and she shared with me her personal vision of how Chinese and Western medicine together can become greater than the sum of the parts. How a new generation of scientists can realise that vision.

Nine months later and back in Beijing, we met again, this time at her home, to record the message for the RSTMH Conference. For me, it’s clear she sees collaboration – East with West – as the way forward. And she’s given me a mission to help take that forward through RSTMH.