Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

China´s traditional medicine suddenly got into the limelight as Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. But the experts in traditional medicine had very mixed feelings, writes journalist Ian Johnson for the New York Times. Tu might have her roots in traditional medicine, but the Nobel Prize certainly did not honor that work.

Ian Johnson:

As China basks in its first Nobel Prize in science, few places seem as elated, or bewildered, by the honor as the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

Located on a shady street in the Old City, the academy is spread over a city block and welcomes visitors with an incongruous juxtaposition: a six-foot high quotation from Chairman Mao facing bronze statues of gowned doctors from antiquity who devised esoteric theories to heal the human body.

These contrasts are part of a bigger, century-long debate in China that has been renewed bythe award on Monday to one of the academy’s retired researchers, Tu Youyou, for extracting the malaria-fighting compound Artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua. It was the first time China had won a Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline.

Traditionalists say the award, in the “physiology or medicine” category, shows the value of Chinese medicine, even if it is based on a very narrow part of this tradition.

“I feel happiness and sorrow,” said Liu Changhua, a professor of history at the academy. “I’m happy that the drug has saved lives, but if this is the path that Chinese medicine has to take in the future, I am sad.”

The reason, he said, is that Dr. Tu’s methods were little different from those used by Western drug companies that examine traditional pharmacopoeia around the world looking for new drugs.

In fact, in its award, the Nobel committee specifically said it was not honoring Chinese medicine, even though Artemisia has been in continuous use for centuries to fight malaria and other fevers, and even though Dr. Tu said she figured out the extraction techniques by reading classical works. Instead, it said it was rewarding Dr. Tu for the specific scientific procedures she used to extract the active ingredient and create a chemical drug.

More in the New York Times.

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