Meet the Extraordinary Women Who Won Nobel Prizes This Year

Youyou Tu and Svetlana Alexievich are representing women globally.
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Youyou Tu and Svetlana Alexievich are representing women globally.
Getty Images

Getty Images

The time has come again to announce the annual laureates of the Nobel Prizes. The Prize is an international honor across many disciplines: physics, chemistry, literature, physiology or medicine, peace, and economic sciences.

The prizes were created from the will of Alfred Nobel to be awarded to those in their respective fields who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Two women were among the laureates awarded this year. The Prize has faced much criticism for being primarily awarded to white (American or European) men for much of its initial history. In the decades since, strides have been made to globalize the winners. Even still, it’s no small feat for anyone, let alone a woman, to be awarded such an honor. Here’s how these women have valiantly contributed to the world.

Youyou Tu, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

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The road to this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine began all the way back in 1967 when Youyou Tu joined a covert mission known as "Project 523" to find a cure for malaria.

During the turmoil of China’s Cultural Revolution, Project 523 was set up by Chairman Mao Zedong. The goal was to help Communist troops fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, where they were losing more soldiers to malaria than to enemy army.

Tu turned to ancient texts and folk manuals and traveled to remote parts of the country searching for clues. She collected two thousand potential remedies and was able to whittle that number down to 380, which she then individually tested on mice.

Eventually she had a breakthrough when one of the compounds derived from sweet wormwood reduced the number of malaria parasites in the rodents’ blood.

The first recorded suggestion for sweet wormwood as a cure for malaria can be traced back to a 1,600-year-old manual on Chinese medicine. In addition to proving this by her research, Tu volunteered to be the new compound’s first human test subject. Tu’s discovery resulted in the drug artemisinin—humankind’s best defense against the mosquito-borne disease that kills 450,000 people each year.

Today, artemisinin compounds form the backbone of malaria treatment. Since the year 2000, more than a billion artemisinin-based treatment courses have been administered to malaria patients, according to the World Health Organization, contributing to the successful control of malaria in several endemic countries.

It is for this reason that Tu was one of a trio of scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. In many ways it is a miracle that the compound was discovered at all, given that most of China’s universities and research institutes were shut down during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and continued for more than a decade. Many scientists, especially those with Western training, were persecuted.

As a result, it wasn’t until 1977 that the first academic paper on artemisinin was published. The first English-language research wasn’t published until 1982. Tu’s success is a story of perseverance if I ever heard one.

Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize in Literature

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Investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Alexievich is the first writer from Belarus and the fourteenth woman (out of 112 winners total) to win the prize.

Alexievich won “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” according to Nobel’s website. In an interview following the announcement, the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, elaborated on the decision.

“For the past thirty or forty years, she has been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual,” Danius said. “But it’s not really about a history of events; it’s about a history of emotions.”

Alexievich usually spends three or four years on a book, she has said. Her most recent volume, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, took her a decade. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of individuals affected by the massive 1986 nuclear meltdown, which spread radioactive particles on the wind across much of Eastern Europe and is considered one of the greatest tragedies in recent memory.

Alexievich’s first book, Ive Left My Village, gave her a local reputation as a political dissident. When she completed The Unwomanly Face of War in 1983, it was not published until 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev came into power because the book promoted the “de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman.”

Alexievich’s outspokenness and clear independence have made her unpopular with authorities in Belarus where, according to her website, she belongs to the opposition.

“Her books add up to a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person,” the site also says.

If you’re new to Alexievich’s work, we recommend beginning with Wars Unwomanly Face—a history of the Soviet women who fought as soldiers in the Second World War.