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Trip of a lifetime

Surprise trip to Africa leads woman on mission to treat malaria

Created date

October 23rd, 2015
Charlestown resident in Africa
Charlestown resident in Africa

Diane Winn always knew she wanted to “do something” with art. As a child, she loved to draw and sketch. But while in pursuit of a career as a medical illustrator, she quickly discovered life doesn’t always go according to plan.

“I had earned my degree in biology and wanted to go to school for medical illustration, but I couldn’t afford it,” says Diane. “A friend of mine was working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and helped me get a job as a medical researcher.”

Diane was selected to be part of a medical research team of 20 NIH workers going to Ghana, a country along West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. Diane, who had just turned 25, didn’t realize it at the time, but she was about to embark on a trip that would change the course of her life forever. 

During her travels, Diane met and worked closely with Dr. Oku Ampofo. The western-trained Ghanaian physician conducted pioneering work into the efficacy of the traditional use of indigenous plant medicines.

“I learned a lot from Dr. Ampofo,” says Diane. “His patients couldn’t afford western medicine, so he turned to the traditional herbalists and began incorporating the best of their plant medicines into his practice.”

Upon Dr. Ampofo’s death, Diane was granted the rights to all of his research. She continued to travel back and forth to Ghana for the next four decades researching treatments for a variety of diseases. 

“I have a database that consists of 272 plants that have been used to treat over 100 different diseases. Our main focus now is on an antimalarial plant,” she says.

Worldwide challenge

More than 400 million people worldwide contract malaria each year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving 1 million dead and millions more incapacitated. According to Diane, on any given day in Ghana, an estimated 40% of workers are sick with malaria, and Ghana is estimated to require more than 30 million doses of an effective antimalarial medication annually.

“I need to get this product on the market because people are suffering,” says Diane.

From her home at

“Thank goodness for email! It allows me to stay connected to the people we have on the ground in Ghana right here from my apartment,” says Diane. 

The Government of Ghana had previously given $1 million to Phytica to develop, produce, and conduct clinical trials on a teabag formulation of an antimalarial product. Clinical trials showed that the plant medication lowered fevers within the first 24 hours and eliminated the parasites from the bloodstream within the first three to five days, with no adverse side effects. 

The company is now working to develop an extract of those same plants into a pill or capsule form. But Diane estimates the company will need to raise another $1 million to $2 million to develop a drug formulation as well as a special formulation for infants and young children.

Full circle

In spite of her years of medical research in Ghana, ironically, it was Diane’s artistic ability that allowed her to develop a relationship with the Ashanti royal family of Ghana.   

“My next-door neighbor ran a nursery school, and every morning we would have coffee as the children were toddling in,” says Diane. “One day I mentioned how I would love to paint this little girl’s portrait. It just so happened that her grandfather was the king.”

Diane was asked by Ghana’s Ashanti royal family to paint the girl’s portrait as well as her grandfather’s, the king. 

Throughout her travels, Diane painted portraits of the entire Ashanti royal family, including the current king Otumfuo Osei Tutu II.

“The last time I visited Ghana, I went to see the king and there in the throne room hanging on the walls were all of my portraits,” says Diane. “He said to me, ‘Diane you haven’t been here for so long, I thought you had forgotten us.’ He then pointed to all the portraits on the wall and said, ‘There’s no way we could forget you. We are surrounded by your work every day.’” 

It’s been two years since Diane’s last visit to Ghana. She ultimately earned her medical illustration degree from Johns Hopkins University and briefly worked part time as a medical illustrator at Hopkins. 

Since moving to Charlestown this summer, she has joined a singing group, the Harmonizers, and still does portraits by request, mostly pastels, for friends and acquaintances. She maintains a close relationship with the Ashanti royal family and hopes to visit Ghana again soon.

“I’ll never retire,” says Diane.  “There’s still too much to be done!”