During the Vietnam War, a string of malaria appeared that was resistant to chloroquine, the most prevalent treatment at the time. Malaria was already a huge killer – in 1967 alone, the disease infected over 5.8M people – and a resistant strain could have spelled disaster. In response, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai launched a secret research group to find a new treatment; in May 1967, an undistinguished female scientist named Tu Youyou joined the team.
By that time, scientists around the world had already tested over 240,000 compounds with no success. And yet, the community at large and the Premier’s team continued to research – the latter sent Tu to the island province of Hainan to research malaria patients in person.
In 1969, Tu had an unconventional idea: why not study traditional Chinese herbal medicine for new ideas on compounds? To their credit, the research team allowed her to pursue this train of thought – for although herbal medicine was considered just one step better than witchcraft, they were desperate – and the team was rewarded for their confidence. After analysis of a 1600-year-old text, on a page titled “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve” to be prescribed for “intermittent fevers” (a classic malaria symptom), Tu discovered the sweet wormwood plant as a possible remedy. Upon testing, Tu found that this was not only the most effective compound of the 240,000+ found to date, but also objectively effective as a remedy for malaria. Her discover could – and eventually would – save literally millions of lives when brought to the world at large.
Unfortunately, however, that “when” wasn’t realized as fast as it could, and should, have been. The difficulty was that the compound was so closely linked with the “superstitions” of ancient Chinese medicine that it was largely ignored on the world stage. It took the World Health Organization another 24 years to approve the use of the compound; and Tu Youyou was only awarded a Nobel Prize for her discovery in 2015. (When she was given another, similar award in 2011, Tu simply commented: “I am too old to bear this.”)
Tu’s discovery had an incredible impact on the world. But could it have been still larger if the world was more receptive to spiritual, or religious, hypotheses? I have to think so.
And I have to wonder what other powerful ideas we might have missed out on – and what future ideas we might let pass – due to skewed notions of what our worldviews really are, and what they ought to be.
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