Women Ground breakers
New painting revealed each week from 10th June 2020
I was reading the How It Works “Book of Great Inventors & Their Inventions” one day and was surprised to realise that, among 30 great inventors, they’d only included one woman.
It got me thinking – we’ve all heard of Einstein, we’ve all heard of Darwin, and Da Vinci. But history is full of groundbreaking women, most of us have never heard of. I think that reputation should be based on achievement, regardless of gender. And so, I’ve created this collection of paintings to redress that balance. Each new portrait will be out weekly.
There is another not-so-subtle feature in the collection, namely, the titles of the paintings. While the paintings are of the women groundbreakers, the titles feature their male counterparts. This is because when I discovered the Book Of Great Inventors and the fact that only one woman was featured in the list of 30 inventors, the idea at first was to paint the men inventors as if they were women, to acknowledge the fact that while many great men were being recognised for their work, there were women working in their shadows who did not receive recognition or equal formal education. Developing the idea further, I’ve decided to feature real women to showcase them and their work, but to also keep the element of the political statement through keeping the names male.
Today is about breaking stereotypes and prejudices, providing equal opportunities and supporting innovation in all corners of the world for all kinds of individuals.
Wernher von Braun
This is NOT actually Wernher von Braun – a spaceflight pioneer. This is Stephanie Kwolek – the inventor of Kevlar. Read about the meaning of the name of the painting above and about the work of Stephanie Kwolek below.
It’s hard to quantify just how many lives have been saved and injuries prevented by high-strength industrial fibres. In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek’s extraordinary hard work paid her back with the serendipitous discovery of a new type of material, whose simultaneous strength, lightness and stiffness gave it boundless possibilities for use in a range of products that would transform industries and improve countless lives. You may well have heard of the most famous of them – Kevlar® – for its use in bulletproof vests, helmets, fighter jets, Formula 1 cars, fireproof suits, tyres and many other products.
Kwolek was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she was ten years old, her father passed away but his passion for the natural sciences lived on in his daughter. She studied chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, graduating aged 23. Originally set out to pursue a career in medicine, she couldn’t resist the lure of organic chemistry, sparked by her time working as a chemist with the DuPont Company, first in Buffalo, New York, then in Wilmington, Delaware. For almost two decades she became absorbed in her work with a type of chemical compound called ‘polyamides’. This involved meticulous experimentation, developing different solvents of these compounds and testing their ability to withstand high heat and pressure.
The amazing thing about her discovery in 1965 – that certain polyamides could line up in the right way to exhibit these strong and flexible characteristics – is that, on the face of it, the particular solution she’d prepared looked a hopeless case. You’d normally expect a suitable solution to look more like transparent gel, not a cloudy liquid. But Kwolek followed her instincts and tested it anyway, and realised it had potential as the basis for a series of world-changing industrial fibres.
As she was working at DuPont at the time, the company greatly benefited from her discovery, assigning teams of scientists to work on the applications of the new material, starting with tyres. Kevlar products only hit the market in 1975, and since then DuPont earned billions thanks to Kwolek and her incredible invention. Since she assigned all her patents to the company she never directly benefited from this discovery. She was nevertheless proud to be saving lives and contributing to society in a meaningful way.
This tenacious energy and her willingness never to accept defeat became one of her trademark qualities – it even saw her land her first job at DuPont when she had been told at interview to wait several weeks and instead demanded an immediate answer as she had an offer from another employer.
After her retirement in 1986, she kept consulting DuPont and received the rare distinction of being awarded, as a woman, the Perkin Medal (in 1997) and the National Medal of Technology (in 1999). She would leave a final legacy in the years before her death in 2014 in mentoring a stream of young female scientists-to-be.
“All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas and playing around with things.”
Kevlar is now used in the full spectrum of industries, from personal armor and protective gear, to tyres, sports equipment and even cryogenics. On an equal weight basis, Kevlar is five times stronger than steel. Today Kevlar is used in tyres, firefighters’ and lumberjacks’ suits, bulletproof vests and helmets, cut-resistant gloves, fiber-optic cables, boat hulls, racing sails, sporting equipment, fighter jets and Formula 1 cars.
Kevlar is a para-aramid synthetic fibre made through thousands of synthetic plastics created through polymerisation (the joining together of long chain molecules). In Kevlar, the internal structure of its molecules is what makes it so incredibly strong – they are arranged in parallel, regular lines and are tightly knitted together. To find out about Kevlar in far more detail, visit Explainthisstuff.Com.
One of its benefits is its extreme lightness relative to other protective properties, making it a great basis for heat-resistant gloves and clothing, used by firefighters for example. Its tensile strength has seen it used to string Japanese Archery bows – it is cheaper than the hemp-based alternative – whilst also used for stringing tennis rackets and as an addition to table tennis bats, offering more bounce and lightness.
Kevlar is most known for its uses in the military – anywhere from helmets and bulletproof vests to fighter jets and armoured vehicles. Since it is so much stronger than steel and so lightweight it offers superior protection against ballistics and fragmentation. It can even be used to reinforce a building in high threat-zones, to protect it against bomb blasts. Walls that would otherwise collapse are kept together by Kevlar.
Nike used it in their Elite II series of basketball shoes, launched in 2013, to reduce elasticity at the shoe’s tip. Numerous bicycle manufacturers have used it to strengthen their tyres and minimise the risk of punctures.
Kevlar even has an application in music – it’s often used in the skin of snare drums which require extreme tightness (to allow for a sharper, cleaner hit sound) and can be found in everything from woodwind reeds, to bow strings, to bass speakers.
If all that wasn’t enough, you find Kevlar in non-stick frying pans (as a replacement for Teflon), suspension bridge cables, fire dancing wicks, smartphone cases and wind turbines.
Indeed, it’s hard to find an industry into which it hasn’t stretched it’s long (very strong, very flexible) tentacles.
photo by Jacek Dylags, Unsplash
photo by Krish Modi, Unsplash
photo by Jakob Owens, Unsplash
Heat resistant clothing
photo by Adrien, Unsplash
photo by Goh Rhy Yan, Unsplash
Sail boats and sails
photo by Diego Romeo, Unsplash
photo by Israel Palacio, Unsplash
photo by Sven Brandsma, Unsplash
photo by Moshari, Unsplash
This is NOT actually Tim Berners-Lee – the inventor of World Wide Web. This is Hedy Lamarr – the inventor of frequency hopping system. Read about the meaning of the name of the painting above and about the work of Hedy Lamarr below.
WIFI. It’s the basis of our lives today, but it all started with this woman, some 60 years ago, when Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, invented what would today be the base of WIFI. During WWII they designed a communication system that would guide torpedoes to their target. This system uses frequency hopping among radio waves, where transmitter and received hop to new frequencies together (source). This achievement dubbed her as the “mother”of WIFI and other wireless communications such as Bluetooth and GPS, which use this frequency hopping method.
Biography. Born in Austria into a Jewish family, father – a bank director and a curious person, encouraged her to question and look closer to the world around her. Her mother was a pianist and got her into arts and music (source). Her original name is Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler.
When she was 16 she got into acting school with the director Reinhardt in Berlin landing her first role in Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”). She became well-known three years later for her role in the controversial film Ecstasy (1933) performing what is believed to be the first ever on-screen orgasm (source). Her unusual situation lead to the marriage with an arms dealer Fritz Mandl, during which she became privy to dinner-table conversations about weaponry and Nazi strategies. Her familiarity with the mechanics of weaponry later contributed to her invention of the frequency hopping method.
She escaped to Hollywood. Hedy Lamarr first made a name for herself on the big screen, first in Austrian and German cinema, and then in Hollywood. In Hollywood she secured a $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, becoming prominent amongst celebrities.
“A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires..”
Frequency hopping method
Inventions. She became friends with Howard Hughes who recognised her inventive capabilities and gifted her some equipment that she could use in her trailer while on set. Hughes took her to the factories, exposing her to the way the airplanes were built and introducing her to the scientists who were working for him. After studying the fastest fish and birds, she proposed new wing designs for airplanes to Hughes, to make the planes faster (source). He sold improved airplanes to the military for the war efforts during WWII.
In 1940 Hedy Lamarr and her friend George Antheil, a composer, invented a frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) or a frequency hopping method and got it patented in 1942. “No one knows what prompted the idea, but Antheil confirmed that it was Lamarr’s design, from which he created a practical model”(source). It was designed to prevent the interception of torpedo transmissions to assist the Allied Forces. It was particularly important to her as Lamarr felt deeply sad for the people who she belonged to being of Jewish descent, and yet living so far away from the atrocities that were happening in her home country.
It was not used in the war as the military was sceptical of its capabilities, but it was finally adapted in 1957. It was used in transmitting underwater positions of the enemy submarines. In 1962 this technology was also used on the ships participating in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Recognition. Their work is now recongnised as “ a precursor to the “spread-spectrum” wireless communication used in mobile phones, global positioning systems, and wi-fi technology.” (source). Controversially, when Lamarr’s patent run out she was not informed. Thus, she was uncredited and uncompensated for an invention that is estimated to be worth $30bn (source).
Lamarr also came up with other inventions such as a bouillon cubes that dissolve in water for a soft fizzy drink like Cola, and a skin-tautening method, which was inspired by the principles of an accordion.
In 1997, Electronic Frontier Foundation officially awarded Lamarr (and Antheil) for inventing FHSS and in 2014 she became part of the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. In 1960 we received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to the film industry.
As you can see this is not Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician and inventor, but Hypatia, Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher.
Hypatia was one of the most prominent mathematicians and astronomers of late antiquity. She was famous in her time and is considered to be the first woman mathematician (that we know about). Scholars traveled from around the world to learn mathematics and astronomy at her school. We still don’t know the exact number of her works, as they did not survive due to political and religious unrest at the time of her life and death. Thankfully she had a number of famous students who kept information on her contribution to ancient philosophy. There are some remnants of her original work, like the treatise and discourse on “The Conics of Apollonius” and “Amagest”. These works contain her philosophical beliefs as well as her studies of stars and planets. From one of her most devoted students, Synesius of Cyrene, and the letters he wrote to her, we learn about her life. Those letters credit her with the creation of an astrolabe and hydrometer. Although there are accounts of astrolabes earlier in history, and she did not invent them per se, she created her own versions of them without any specific manuals, only based on descriptions by Synesius.
The reason why Hypatia was able to study philosophy, mathematics and astronomy was because of her father, Theon of Alexandria. He was a prestigious scholar at the University of Alexandria and brought her up as a son, much to the criticism of others as it was against the norm at the time. Despite conflicting evidence and writings about Hypatia, it is certain that she was a “martyr for philosophy”, bearing influence on the elites of her society, editing the surviving text of Ptolemy’s Almagest and serving as an advisor to Orestes, the Roman governors of the city. She made a permanent mark in history and is still remembered and romanticised in literature and film.
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”
Socrates of Constantinople
More about her life and work
We move on now to perhaps the original ‘woman scientist’, although who knows what other female groundbreakers have been lost to the annals of history.
Some of the most fundamental questions and ideas about our nature and our place in the universe originate in the works of Hypatia, and yet she is rarely mentioned in the same breath as her more famous male counterparts, the Aristotles and Euclids of this world.
Much of our knowledge about Hypatia’s life and work is shrouded in mystery, as many sources haven’t survived the centuries since, whether through war, fire or other natural disasters. Much of what we know about her comes from a series of seven letters written to her by one of her most famous pupils, Synesius of Cyrene.
Hypatia was born in the latter half of the 4th Century AD in Alexandria, a Greco-Roman city in modern day Egypt that boasted a world famous library and a hub for mathematical and philosophical thought, second at the time only to Athens.
Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was a renowned scholar in Euclidean theory and his student-friendly version of Euclidean Elements was an educational staple for many centuries. Hypatia followed in his footsteps in devoting her life to the teaching of Neoplatonism, a philosophical school that propounded the idea, rooted in the work of Ptolemy, that everything in the universe grew out from a singular, all controlling power called ‘The One’. A teacher by trade, her primary influence lay in her educational writings on the works of great thinkers before her, simplifying complex concepts for her students.
She was not just a theoretician however; she was also a practical teacher and made an impact in a number of scientific disciplines, including astronomy, mathematics and algebra. She learned the art of manufacturing astrolabes – a tool used to work out the date and time based on where stars and planets are in the sky; it can also be used to predict their positions at future points – and handed down this knowledge to her students.
She died in the year 415 AD at the hands of a Christian mob, who allegedly dragged her into a converted pagan temple and hacked her to pieces before dragging her remains through the streets of Alexandra to be cremated outside the city’s bounds – so as to prevent the risk that her body be turned into religious relics. Her murder was described by the 5th Century historian Socrates Scholasticus as a political assassination, caused by her perceived involvement in a feud between the Roman prefect of the city and its new bishop.
DNA is our most fundamental understanding of ourselves – this is what we are. The person behind the first ever x-ray photograph of DNA and its structure is Rosalind Franklin. She was an English chemical scientist, specialising in X-ray crystallography and her work is paramount to our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.
DNA was first discovered in the late 1860s by Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher. But its molecular structure was not known and this is why Franklin’s work was so important. Understanding the structure of DNA allowed for a far more effective way to investigate disease pathways, analyse a person’s genetic susceptibility to certain diseases, identify pathogens, diagnose genetic disorders, and come up with new medicines. (source)
Rosalind Franklin was born in London, UK, in 1920. She studied in private schools, learning chemistry and physics, which was uncommonly taught to girls. Her father, whose dream of becoming a scientist was cut short by the war, encouraged his daughter to pursue science. She went on to do a degree in chemistry at Cambridge University in 1938. After graduating she received a graduate scholarship but after a year she left to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, as she was treated differently by colleagues in the department because she was a woman. There she researched and published a significant work on coal structure which got her a PhD from Cambridge in 1945.
After the war she moved to Paris to join Marcel Mathieu and work as a “chercheur” in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. There she did analyses of carbons using X-ray crystallography. This specialisation in X-raw crystallography led her to receive an offer from King’s College, to improve the X-ray crystallography unit at the university. She was to work alongside Maurice Wilkins who first thought that she was hired to be his assistant rather than a colleague. She pursued the improvement of crystallography for the study of DNA structure. In May 1952 Franklin took the famous high resolution Photograph 51 which for the first time ever revealed the molecular structure of DNA. This was a breakthrough of enormous proportions. (source)
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
DNA Structure Image
About DNA structure’s discovery:
She unveiled her findings at a now famous talk at King’s College, London, which was attended by James Watson. Subsequently, writing in The Double Helix, Watson claimed that he hadn’t been paying close enough attention during the lecture to be able properly to discuss Franklin’s findings with his associate, Francis Crick, with whom he was working at the Cavendish Laboratory on the structure of DNA. Her X-ray data were instead shared with them independently by Maurice Wilkins who never, along with Crick and Watson, collaborated directly with Franklin. But the data did prove their theories around a 3D structure for DNA. Franklin expounded her research in the same 1953 edition of Nature that featured the respective papers of Wilkins and the Crick-Watson duo.
After leaving King’s and all the drama there in 1953 to work at the Birkbeck lab, she studied the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) and published a number of papers. She worked on nucleic acid, RNA, a molecule equally central to life as DNA. She managed to keep working through a long battle with cancer. Franklin lost that battle and died in 1958.
Watson, Crick and Wilkins were all awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, but not Franklin, although the rule of not awarding the Nobel Prize posthumously was not in effect until 1973, which means she should have been awarded the prize as she enabled others to progress in this field as well. Additionally, Aaron Klug, who was Franklin’s colleague and main beneficiary, was awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for “for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes.” (source). This is what Franklin was working on and introduced Klug to, so it is highly likely that had she been alive, they both would have been awarded the prize.
Did you know that eyesight is a basic human right? This was established by the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, co-founded in 1976 by Patricia Bath – the subject of this week’s painting.
A pioneer in the field of cataract treatment, Patricia Bath used the power of laser-technology to invent a more accurate and less painful procedure, thus leaving a legacy that spans far beyond the reaches of her field of ophthalmology. In 1988 she became the first African American woman to be awarded a patent for a medical invention and since then her invention influenced millions of people around the world.
Bath was born in Harlem, New York, in 1942 to a father who was the first black man employed as a motorman for the New York City Subway, and a mother who kindled Patricia’s interest in the sciences by gifting her first chemistry set.
Along with her parents, she was blessed with a network of encouraging teachers and spent many of her High School years starting to explore the world of scientific research before earning a National Science Foundation scholarship. She began research into the links between stress, malnutrition and cancer and, among other things, discovered a mathematical formula that could be used to anticipate the growth of cancer cells, before she had turned eighteen.
After moving to Washington DC to study medicine, her mid twenties coincided with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr four years later, and her subsequent work was inspired by the movement’s aim to empower all people. This work included the rallying of her fellow students at the Howard University College of Medicine to offer their health care services for free at the Poor People’s Campaign in Resurrection City.
Her work in ophthalmology – the branch of medicine diagnosing and treating eye disorders – was sparked on her return to Harlem in her late twenties, to intern at Harlem Hospital, affiliated with Columbia University. She saw a disproportionately high rate of blindness at the hospital compared with the university’s eye clinic and, seeing a great opportunity not only to treat those in need but also conduct research and experimentation in the field, convinced the professors at the university to operate on blind patients on a volunteering basis. She herself was thus a proud participant in the first eye surgery at the hospital in late 1969.
Her career was a hugely productive combination of research, invention and humanitarian work in ophthalmology. In 1979, she published groundbreaking research, based on her observations at Harlem Hospital, showing a higher rate of blindness among the black community, and in particular the extremely high rate of glaucoma as a source of blindness in blacks.
Her humanitarian drive led to the founding of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Along with establishing sight as a basic human right, the Institute allowed Bath and her co-founders, the Nigerian-born pediatrician, Aaron Ifekwunigwe, and American psychiatrist, Alfred Cannon, to distribute free eye drops, vitamins and vaccinations to infants all around the globe. She even managed to restore the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years, using a process called keratoprosthesis where the cornea is removed and replaced by an artificial one.
“Believe in the power of truth. Don’t allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”
Dr Patricia Bath
About Laser phaco invention:
Her invention of ‘Laser phaco’ (or ‘laser PHotoAblative Cataract surgery’), which is a more precise and less painful cataract-removal procedure, grew out of research she was doing, first in the Parisian lab of the laser pioneer Danièle Aron-Rosa, then at the Laser Medical Center in Berlin in 1986. Her device was completed later that year and patented in 1988, when she became the first African American woman to be awarded a patent for a medical invention. It has since been used in countries all across the world to restore sight to countless numbers of people, including those who have been unable to see for decades. In 2009, she was recognised by Barack Obama for her philanthropic work in ophthalmology.
Bath’s passion and determination saw her continue her work in supporting the undersupported right to the end of her career. Just a few weeks before her death in May 2019, she testified at “Trailblazers and Lost Einsteins: Women Inventors and the Future of American Innovation”, a hearing focused on the huge gap between men and women in scientific research and invention.
Grace Murray Hopper
Dr Grace Murray Hopper revolutionised and modernised computer programming by inventing the first compiler, a program that converts programming code into machine language. She was one of the first computer programmers, working on the Hardvard Mark I – the first machine that could process long computations automatically, used in the war efforts during WWII.
Among many achievements, Dr Hopper helped to develop COBOL – one of the first high-level programming languages, and she reached the title of the Rear Admiral of the United States Navy, receiving the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (the highest award by the Department of Defence) upon retirement and holding over 30 honorary doctorate degrees.
To really understand the significance of Grace Hopper’s work on computing language, think of this.
You might have heard of ‘binary’ notation – that the basis of all computing language is ones and zeroes. This sort of thing:
Everything that a computer does can be reduced to many ones and zeroes.
How many? Well the Microsoft Windows programme takes about 20GB to run, which equates to 170 Billion ones and zeroes.
Imagine programming that from scratch.
The upshot of Hopper’s work on compiling – automatically translating what we want machines to do into this form of code – is that we don’t have to programme individuals computers and functions from scratch.
“If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”
Dr Grace Murray Hopper
Early Life, Education & Career
A young Grace Hopper’s fascination with machines is probably best illustrated by the lovely story about her taking apart her alarm clock to see how it worked, before proceeding to do the same to 7 other clocks in her house before her mum found her out…
This passion for machines translated into a wider mission throughout her career – to bring computing to a much wider audience.
After completing her Masters Degree in Physics and Maths at Yale University, and then her Maths phD 4 years later, Hopper returned to her alma mater, Vassar College, to teach maths and begin her research into computers and machine language.
She served in the Navy Reserves from 1943 and she stayed in her research fellowship under a Navy contract, who saw the amazing potential of her work to revolutionise military technology.
This notwithstanding, Hopper found that, throughout her career, she had to fight for the genius of her work to be recognised. She claimed that, on developing her first working ‘compiler’ in 1953, no one was interested in it because “computers could only do arithmetic”.
6 years later, she finished developing her new computer language – COBOL (standing for “COmmon Business-Oriented Language”) – and worked to standardise computing language throughout the world to make it more effective and accessible.
Her work saw her secure a stream of prestigious awards. In 1973, she became the first woman and the first American to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, and by the time she retired from the Navy in 1986 (aged 80), she had attained the rank of Rear Admiral. She continued working to the end as a consultant to the Digital Equipment Corporation and was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, several months before her death.
Tu Youyou saves millions of lives every year through her invention and is celebrated as a true groundbreaker. She is the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in a scientific category Physiology or Medicine, and she did it without a doctorate or medical degree, with no training abroad. She was also the first human volunteer to test the ingredient that she isolated believing it would certainly work, and it did!
While working at the Institute of Materia Medica at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine she derived the solution from traditional Chinese medicine, saying “Artemisinin… is a true gift from old Chinese medicine”. She received no patents and had no recognition until over 40 years later.
Early Life and Education
Tu YouYou was born in Ningbo, China, in 1930 and named after a passage in the Chinese Book of Odes describing the bleating of a deer as it ate the Artemisia, a plant that later became inextricably woven into YouYou’s work by sheer coincidence.
Her first contact with the world of medicine came in the form of an education-interrupting bout of tuberculosis when she was eighteen. This inspired her to go into medical research and from the age of 21 to 25 she studied at Peking University’s Medical College, graduating from its school of Pharmacy in 1955. She spent her early professional years studying the traditional Chinese medicine used to cure schistosomiasis – a condition caused by fluke worm infections in the intestines.
Malaria is a mosquito-transmitted disease that kills over 450,000 people every day, with almost three and a half billion living with the risk of catching it. Single-cell malaria parasites invade red-blood cells, leading to fever and, in the worst case, brain damage and death.
Her journey to a world-changing discovery began during the Vietnam War in a secret research project launched by Mao Zedong and his Head of Government, Zhou Enlai. Malaria had become a huge problem in the soldiers’ ranks, claiming up to three times as many lives in the Chinese military as the war itself, and the existing treatments – using chloroquine or quinine – were showing decreasing levels of success.
Tu headed the project and harnessed a combination of electricity, water and microscopic observation to try to find a solution rooted in herbal medicine.
“Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world.”
The Discovery – Artemisinin
The progress in her research took place alongside wider developments in the Chinese medical community, as the country evolved out of the wake of the economic hardship of war and the “Cultural Revolution”. Reforms and a more general ‘opening up’ to the rest of the world through the 1970s allowed for better treatment and wider recognition of scientific researchers in China.
After painstaking examination of the effects of different plant extracts in other malaria-infected creatures, the Artemisia annua plant emerged as the most likely candidate, but showed inconsistent results until Tu began exploring ancient literature, in which she found ways to isolate its active ingredient, now known as ‘artemisinin’.
Artemisinin is now the basis of a new group of antimalarial medicines which kill the Malaria parasites early on in their growth. It’s said to reduce the Malaria death rate in people treated with it by 20% (30% for children) representing over 100,000 lives a year saved in African countries alone.
It’s worth noting that Tu never benefited commercially from this work, as China had nothing akin to a patent with which she could protect her intellectual property rights in the discovery. However, to have such a positive impact on so many societies far outweighs any conceivable commercial gain or acclaim. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015 for her work and, upon receiving it, the 85-year old said:
“I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured.”
To this day, she still maintains that the link between her name and her life’s work is a happy coincidence.