The Disabled Peasant Boy Who Became a Medical Doctor
In a a garden in the grounds of the Korle Bu hospital in the Western part of Ghana’s capital Accra, stands a pedestal with the bust of a man with bushy hair and a moustache, wearing a jacket and tie. ‘Noguchi Hideyo – Japanese’, says the plaque underneath it, with the dates 1876-1928. Even today, West Africa is a long way from Japan: there appear to be no direct flights.
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Noguchi grew up, few Japanese would even have heard of the British possession known as the Gold Coast. Yet here, Noguchi Hideyo, the son of a peasant from northern Japan, died on 21 May 1928 of yellow fever. He had come to Accra from New York as a member of the Rockefeller Institute in order to find the cause and cure for the disease that would kill him. From the primitive farmhouse on the shores of Lake Inawashiro in Fukushima prefecture to the west coast of Africa as an internationally recognized researcher; in the 51 years of his life Noguchi travelled a long way, both geographically and socially. Hardly surprising then, that his name entered Japanese school textbooks as one of the ones who made it.
Even apart from his humble origins, little Hideyo had a had a less than promising start. His father took to drink, and his mother Shika slaved to keep the family going, working in the fields and selling the produce on the market. She left her baby son in the care of his grandmother. Disaster struck when Hideyo had not yet reached the age of two. He had begun to crawl and explore his surroundings. His grandmother, hard of hearing and with poor eyesight, did not always notice what he got up to. Traditional Japanese houses look different from European ones, but they too contain dangers for a small child. In the middle of the main room, an opening between the tatami mats contains a sunken fireplace, around which the family can huddle on cold days. Into this Hideo stuck an inquisitive hand. His mother, working in the fields, not his grandmother, heard the baby’s screams.
Hideyo recovered, but when Shika removed the bandages, the little fingers stuck tightly together. The heir of the house of Noguchi had a crippled hand. Smitten by remorse, his mother vowed to do her best for her eldest son. With her support and that of a sympathetic teacher, but above all through his own ability and determination, Noguchi excelled at school. He won the respect of his comrades and even impressed them so much that they, together with their teacher Kobayashi Sakae, collected money for an operation on his hand. As so many times in the course of his life, Noguchi proved able to win the support of people who could help him. Fifteen years after the accident, an operation in the nearby town of Wakamatsu by Dr Watanabe, who had recently returned from his studies at the University of California restored the use of his left hand. This miracle of modern medicine deeply moved Noguchi. In spring 1893, after graduation from higher elementary school, the 16-year-old asked Dr Watanabe to employ him as an apprentice. Three years later, in September 1896 he left Wakamatsu for Tokyo, resolving to pass the passed the approbation examination introduced by the Medicine Law in 1872. By this time, education in Japan had become as organised as any modern system in the West. Twenty years later, the normal route to medical practice led through the school system to schools to the Medical Faculty at the Imperial University, graduation from which secured exemption from the medical examinations. This route would have been almost impossible for Noguchi.
As it was, his former teacher and comrades collected funds for him. Dr Watanabe’s friend Professor Chiwaki Morinosuke at the Takayama Dental Clinic (forerunner of Tokyo Dental Hospital) took him in as an apprentice. One month later, he passed the written part of the examination, and one year later the clinical part. He had achieved in a year what took less gifted and less determined candidates 10 years. He worked at his mentor’s clinic, then at Juntendô and finally at the Kitasato Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. But the other doctors had nearly all graduated from the Imperial University, making him an outsider. Besides, his left hand, although almost fully functional again, was still disfigured.
It working as a quarantine officer that eventually gained Noguchi some respect. Ever since taking his first look through a microscope in Dr Watanabe’s clinic, microbes fascinated him. Now he managed to diagnose a case of the plague, thus preventing its carrier from spreading the disease in Japan. Kitasato, impressed by the young man’s abilities, selected him to take part in an international commission to investigate an outbreak of the plague in China. Here Noguchi obtained the clinical experience denied to him by prejudice in Japan and the respect of foreign colleagues, whom, thanks to his linguistic talent and perhaps even more his determination, he managed to communicate with. He had already displayed his English-language skills during a visit by Simon Flexner to the Kitasato Institute. Noguchi expressed a wish to study in America and Flexner reportedly said, ‘Yes, do come’ – a noncommittal reply, but Noguchi felt encouraged to take him at his word. Perhaps he sensed that he would never manage to fulfil his ambitions in Japan.
Ampiah, Kweku. “Noguchi Shika: the eternal mother of modern Japan”, Japan Forum 12.1 (2000), pp.77-85.
Iinuma, Nobuko. Noguchi Hideyo no tsuma (Noguchi Hideyo’s Wife). Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ôraisha, 1992.
Noguchi Hidyo kinenkai, ed. Nihon ga unda sekai no igakusha Noguchi Hideyo (Noguchi Hideyo, the world reknown physician born in Japan). Tokyo: Noguchi Hideyo Kinenkai, 2002.
Plesset, Isabel R. Noguchi and His Patrons. London: Associated University Presses, 1980.
Yamamoto, Atsuko. Noguchi Hideyo; Shirazaru kiseki: Merî Roretta Dâjisu to no deai (Noguchi Hideyo; unknown tracks: encounter with Mary Loretta Dardis). Tokyo: Yamate Shobô Shinsha, 1992.
Source for picture of Accra:
(Other pictures by Margaret Mehl)