Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Youyou Tu -- Chinese heroine

The Nobel for Chinese medical researcher is testimony to the fact that the West now recognises that there is more to the traditions of medicine outside Europe and America than mere antiquity.

This year, the award for Physiology and Medicine is touching and inspiring because the Nobel Committee has chosen to honour a Chinese pharmacologist, Youyou Tu who has discovered a remedy for the tropical scourges of malaria. After Ross had discovered while working in Calcutta/Kolkata in the early 20th century that malaria is caused by the bite of the anopheles mosquito, and found that quinine is the medicinal antidote, the fever that used to kill thousands had been brought under control. But over the years, the mosquitoes that trigger malarial fever mutated and developed resistance. In the 1970s, North Vietnam’s legendary communist leader Ho Chi Minh had requested then Chinese president and chairman of the communist party, Mao Tse Tung to usher in research in Chinese medicine to find a cure for malaria.

Mao obliged and set up a research programme. It was out of this political decision that Youyou Tu discovered Artemisinin, the herbal derivaive for fighting malaria. Her discovery had proved effective in a limited but significant way, and it reduced the incidence of malaria by 20 per cent. A similar research programme carried out by Japan’s Satoshi Omura and American William Campbell resulted in a treatment for roundworm and other parasites. The physiology and medicine prize for these scientists is significant because the efforts of these researchers did not eradicate the tropical diseases but they turned out to have tremendous palliative effects. It is recognition that at least in the field of medicine where scientists are forever engaged in the war with disease, the researchers score limited victories, and the disease itself remains intransigent.

Youyou’s Tu achievement is all the more impressive because she was working under stressful conditions of war in Vietnam and a not-very-happy regime of communist party dictatorship at home. She did not have access to the relatively conducive academic atmosphere that is the norm in the affluent West and in Japan. Secondly, she was working within the non-Western tradition of Chinese medicine. It has indeed taken a long time for the Nobel committee to recognise that there are significant traditions of scientific research outside of the modern Western tradition.

It was biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham who in the 1950s first discovered the scientific traditions in China. But monopolistic and imperialist West has stubbornly refused to accept any other system other than its own. It was part of the cultural domination that went hand-in-hand with the political and economic domination of Asia and Africa. By choosing Youyou for the Nobel, the scientific establishment in the West seems to have opened its doors a little. This can also be interpreted to mean that it is Chinese economic power that has forced the West to defer to what this ancient civilisation has to offer. It is indeed the opening up of the Western intellectual domain to China and to Asia.

In the last quarter century, historians of science in Europe and America have been writing about the non-western knowledge traditions, and parts of it have been expropriated by the West without due acknowledgement. In the 1990s, Ramesh Vinayak Mashelkar, the then director-general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had begun the project of creating the digital database for “indigenous knowledge”. There is now need to apply the modern tools of research to the ancient systems to make them useful for the people and to revive the intellectual traditions of research. China has shown the way because its dependence on Western pharmacology is quite limited, and it has managed to bring back the older systems back into use and even create new frontiers. Youyou has shown that it can be done. The Nobel for her work is testimony to her achievement.


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