How Chairman Mao's secret military project led to a Nobel Prize

Western science + Chinese herbal remedies = win

This year’s Nobel Prize award has its roots in Chairman Mao’s secret plan to systematise Chinese medicine.

Half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to 83 year old Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing for her work in counteracting malaria, proving the properties of Chinese herbal remedies using the Western scientific method.

Her Nobel-winning work was part of Mao’s “Project 523”, a secret military project launched during the Cultural Revolution, during which scientists were persecuted, and much scientific work stopped.

Ironically, “old ideas” were one of the “Four Olds” (habits, culture, customs and ideas) the Revolution sought to destroy.

Tu’s team spent years examining the properties of some 2,000 Chinese herbal remedies, a laborious and often unrewarding process that isolated some 640 of the most promising compounds.

Tu’s team identified one, derived from a 1,700-year old recipe using sweet wormwood, (artemisia annua, or sweet annie) for use in fighting malaria. The team isolated the crystal compound and synthesised a version ten times more powerful, with enough confidence to use themselves as guinea pigs.

This became the Artemisinin (ACT) family of treatments, and hundreds of millions of doses have been administered since then.

Tu’s role had been obscure for decades, and she has only been credited within the past five years. There’s an account of this by Jia-Chen Fu at the University of Nottingham. Fu, who is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Emory University, notes that:

Contrary to popular assumptions that Maoist China was summarily against science and scientists, the Communist party-state needed the scientific elite for certain political and practical purposes.

Medicine, particularly when it also involved foreign relations, was one such area.

In this case, it was the war in Vietnam and the scourge of malaria that led to the organization of Project 523.


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