Sometimes it takes a while before a reporter learns the full story.
A decade ago, I traveled to the Thailand-Burma border for The Scientist magazine to report on the development of artemisinin, then a relatively new drug that gave doctors battling malaria in developing countries an effective weapon for combating resistant strains of the disease.
On Monday, one of those scientists, Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work in synthesizing artemisinin.
While reporting in Southeast Asia, I learned that the drug had been a fortunate byproduct of America's unfortunate war in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, North Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh wrote China's Mao Zedong asking for help in combating the disease, which was disabling more of his jungle-bound troops than American bombs. Mao, who had already launched the science-destroying cultural revolution, put his nation's scientists, who were limited to practicing traditional Chinese medicine, to work on the problem.
The various institutes of Traditional Chinese Medicine met in Beijing on May 23, 1967, to formulate a strategy. The answer, they speculated, would be found in qinghaosu (ching-how-sue), known as the sweet wormwood bush in the West. In 340 A.D., medical author Ge Hong had written in Zhou Hou Bei Ji Fang (Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments) that drinking concentrated qinghaosu tea was effective in treating high fevers associated with malaria, one of mankind's oldest scourges.
The Beijing institute took the lead in looking for and isolating the active ingredient in qinghaosu and formulating it into an ingestible drug. The Guangzhou institute in southern China, located near the malarial endemic zones of Southeast Asia, would take the lead in testing it in humans. Western medicine may have been dead to Mao, but his traditional herbalists knew better.
To get the full story on how that drug was proved effective in humans by clinicians from the Guangzhou Institute of Chinese Traditional Medicine, see this 2006 story from The Scientist magazine.
Since I didn't get a chance to travel to Beijing on that trip, I never learned the story about the synthesis of the drug. Monday's prize filled that gap in my reporting.
Today, malaria has not been eradicated around the world. But its incidence and mortality rates have been sharply reduced by new drugs as well as public health measures such as widespread use of mosquito nets.
More than 58,000 Americans and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese died during the war. That deaths from malaria over the past several decades have been cut in half to about 500,000 people a year – in large part due to the arrival of artemisinin – is one of its few positive legacies.