Many – no, let’s be honest: most – traditional, ancient medicines are useless or feeble, long ago surpassed by scientific medicine. But sometimes the overused idea of “ancient wisdom” leads to something useful, and in those cases we should be grateful.

One of those was honored by this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine. As New Scientists relates (read it here),  Tu Youyou  (one of three winners who helped vanguish diseases caused by parasits) was picked by the Chinese communists to pore through traditional Chinese medicine to see if she could find a medicine to fight malaria.

She and three assistants reviewed more than 2000 recipes for traditional Chinese remedies in the academy’s library. They made 380 herbal extracts and tested them on mice. One of the compounds did indeed reduce the number of malaria parasites in the blood. It was derived from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), a plant common throughout China, which was in a treatment for “intermittent fevers” – a hallmark of malaria.

The team carried out further tests, only to be baffled when the compound’s powers seemed to melt away. Tu reread the recipe, written more than 1600 years ago in a text appositely titled “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve”. The directions were to soak one bunch of wormwood in water and then drink the juice. Tu realised that their method of preparation, boiling up the wormwood, might have damaged the active ingredient. So she made another preparation using an ether solvent, which boils at 35 °C. When tested on mice and monkeys, it proved 100 per cent effective.

So it took modern medicine to make ancient wisdom actually effective – but you still have to admire that ancient wisdom, which recognized the value of wormwood at a time when technology made such recognition very difficult.

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