From Fukushima to Ghana: Noguchi Hideyo, the Peasant Boy Who Made It (2)

From Fukushima to Ghana: Noguchi Hideyo, the Peasant Boy Who Made It (2)

America and Europe

Simon Flexner

Continued from From Fukushima to Ghana: Noguchi Hideyo, the Peasant Boy Who Made It (1)

Again, Noguchi’s friends helped him financially. Once in San Francisco, he took the Union Pacific railway to Philadelphia. He probably did not know it, but among the workers who built this railway toiled many an immigrant from his home province, Aizu. On Christmas Eve 1900, he turned up in Professor Flexner’s laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania – to the man’s great surprise. Nevertheless, Flexner employed Noguchi as a research assistant, paying him out of his own pocket to do research into snake venoms and serum.

Ten months later, Noguchi published his results, earning himself a bursary and a regular post as assistant at Pennsylvania University. His research into blood serum and immunity helped lay the foundation of the science of immunology. Already at the end of 1901 he and Flexner could report his findings at a meeting of the Academy of Science in Washington. Gradually, as he published more work, he became known.

National Serum Institute, Copenhagen ©

Noguchi hoped to study in Germany: German medicine still had the highest reputation among Japanese scientists, and he felt he would never gain respect at home, if he stayed in the United States. Flexner, however, had other plans for him. In 1903 he sent Noguchi to Denmark for further study at the National Serum Institute in Copenhagen, established the year before. There he published five papers jointly with the institute’s young director, Thorvald Madsen, and three or four on his own. The new, clean institute with its orderly routines provided an ideal research environment, and Noguchi seems to have had a happy, as well as a productive time in Denmark, marred only by the increased anti-Japanese sentiment in Europe after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.

Rockefeller University, Founder’s Hall

In September 1904 he returned to the United States to become a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, established in 1901 with Flexner as founding director. During the next few years, he worked exceedingly hard, producing 28 papers on snake venom, tetanus, immunology and syphilis. He received a Master of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907 and the rank of associate member of the Rockefeller Institute in 1909.

But these honours may well have paled for him beside the honorary doctorate awarded him by the Imperial University of Kyoto in 1911; a high honour indeed at a time when doctorates usually represented the crown of a scientist’s career. Thus, as the Meiji era drew to a close, Noguchi, the peasant boy from the last domain to fight the Meiji government, received the highest academic distinction the Meiji state could bestow.

Likewise in 1911, he finally married. His Japanese mentors had wanted him to for years, believing it would cure him of his dissolute habits. Back in 1900, just before his departure for America, Noguchi’ teacher and mentor Professor Chiwaki Morinosuke had mediated his engagement to a young woman from a family of doctors. The family had even lent him 300 yen to pursue his studies abroad. These he had promptly wasted on a farewell party. His mentor had finally bought Noguchi a ticket and personally escorted him onto the ship to prevent him from spending the money again. Three years later, Noguchi had asked the engagement to be annulled, because he no longer considered the young lady as a suitable wife for someone of his status.

Most people would have considered Mary Dardis even less suitable. Born to Irish immigrants in the mining town of Scranton in 1876, she received minimal education before she left for New York in around 1900, probably to work as a housemaid. Noguchi had met her at some restaurant, where she often drank with a couple of friends much younger than herself. North American Puritanism and Japanese samurai ideology about a woman’s place have conspired to give Mary Dardis a bad reputation. The ‘Noguchi legend’ contrasts his mother Shika, the typical Confucian virtuous mother who sacrificed herself to give her disabled son an education, with Mary, the bad wife who smoked, drank and wasted money. In fact, such evidence as we have, suggests that Noguchi may not have chosen so badly at all. Mary Dardis may well may well have saved him from financial disaster, Noguchi having shown himself incapable of handling money wisely.

A third supporting woman in Noguchi’s life was Evelyn Tilden. She had been hired as his secretary while he worked at the Marine Research Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Miss Tilden had a college degree in languages. Miss Tilden supported Noguchi’s career by assisting him with his research and his publications. In fact, she became virtually Noguchi’s apprentice. With Flexner’s permission he let her attend courses in biology and organic chemistry at Columbia University, and she later made a career for herself in science, receiving a doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1931, becoming professor at the Medical Faculty North-Western University and then a researcher at the veterinary hospital attached to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The fact that Noguchi was spending more time with his female assistant in his laboratory than with his wife led to all sorts of speculations, but thanks to Flexner’s strong leadership and the discretion of all parties involved, we have no way of knowing what exactly happened or didn’t happen between Noguchi and Tilden.

In any case, Mary Noguchi may well have been less concerned about Hideyo’s relationships with other women than with the realization that she had married a driven man. Driven by his ambition and by an urge to work with the most dangerous diseases and in the most insalubrious parts of the world, Noguchi’s pursuit of knowledge seemed to become ever more frantic.

To be continued


Picture Sources:

Noguchi at work: National Diet Library, Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures,

土井晩翠 著 野口英世博士記念会 1939

Simon Flexner: Wikipedia

National Serum Institute: ©

Rockefeller University, Founder’s Hall: Wikipedia



Author Bio

Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen