Worldwide Fame and Death in Accra
The years from 1913 to 1915 marked the zenith of Noguchi Hideyo’s career as an internationally recognized scientist. He travelled to Europe for a lecture tour. He received awards from Spain, Denmark and Sweden. Between 1913 and 1927 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.
In 1915, after 14 years of absence, Noguchi visited his home country, where he was showered with honours. But according to the ‘Noguchi legend’, the highlight was his reunion with his mother Shika. He had sent money and kept in touch with his family via his benefactor Kobayashi Sakae. Occasionally (or, according to the Noguchi legend, only once), Shika, barely literate, wrote to him. Using only the syllabic script without any Chinese characters, she entreated him to return to her: ‘Come back home soon, come back home soon, come back home soon, come back home soon. That is my ultimate wish. […]’[i]
If Noguchi had hoped that the honours received would result in an academic position in Japan, he was disappointed. He left, knowing or suspecting that he would never return. His drive to achieve seemed increasingly compulsive. His research on methods of identifying different strains of infectious jaundice and (from 1918) on yellow fever took him to Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, and in all those countries his memory is still honoured. He achieved sound results in his research on several diseases which afflicted South Americans. More honours were showered on him: by Ecuador, Norway, France; the Universites of Yucatan in Mexico, Yale, and the Sorbonne. He was awarded memberships of the most prestigious learned societies of Italy, Ecuador, Venezuela, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Japan.
Still, Noguchi never seemed satisfied. As he wrote to Flexner in 1925: ‘Somehow I cannot manage to find enough time to sit quietly and think over things calmly and reflect upon many things and phases in life. I seem to be chasing something all the time, perhaps an acquired habit or rather the lack of poise.’[ii]
The heady atmosphere at the Rockefeller Institute drove the driven man even further. Exaggerated optimism and the pressure to succeed led members to publish research results prematurely and to draw far-reaching conclusions on questionable evidence, sometimes with disastrous results. Noguchi, vulnerable because of the hardships of his youth, his unorthodox educational career and his outsider position in a foreign country, may well have been more affected by his failures than most – particularly his failure to establish beyond doubt the cause of yellow fever and find a vaccination and a cure for it.
Determined find answers, Noguchi resolved to go to Africa. In vain, his wife and colleagues a tried to dissuade him. A young man no longer, he looked spent and ill. In October 1927 he left New York, nevertheless. By Christmas he was hard at work at the laboratory of the British hospital on the Gold Coast. There, in Accra, in the middle of yellow fever country, he continued his quest, working tirelessly. In January1928, he fell ill, but recovered. In March, he wrote that he had discovered the bacillus that caused yellow fever and was looking for a vaccine and a cure. He promised to return soon and tried to reassure his wife, concealing that he himself had contracted yellow fever. His work might come first, but he still missed her. When he no longer heard from her, he sent increasingly frantic telegrams: seven in the last three weeks of his life. No letters from Mary survive, however, another reason for her detractors to condemn her. Mary, meanwhile, faced her own disaster: in March, she was called to her brother’s bedside; he died a few days later. She never told Hideyo, who continued to send his regards to him in his letters.
Noguchi Hideyo died on Saturday 21 May 1928, at noon. His colleague William Young, an Englishman with whom he had got on well, saw to it that his remains were protected from the African heat and shipped to New York, where the Rockefeller Institute arranged the burial. A week later, Young himself succumbed to yellow fever.
Mary survived her husband by 20 years. She proved as loyal to his memory as any samurai wife might have been. She cooperated with the Rockefeller Institute in disposing of his affairs. She sent substantial amounts of money to Aizu, although Noguchi had left everything to Mary in a will, drawn up in 1917. She even had most of his personal effects shipped to Aizu, when she learned of plans to open a museum. She died in Harlem in 1947 and was buried in the same plot Noguchi Hideyo in Woodlawn cemetery. His tombstone from the Rockefeller Institute does not record her name: only in recent years was a commemorative tablet added.
Noguchi Hideyo’s elevation to a mythical figure began already in the months following his death, simultaneously in America and Japan. At the memorial service in New York, Simon Flexner and other eminent scientists praised his contribution to bacteriological research for the good of humanity at great personal risk. They contrasted his achievements with his humble origins. Flexner prepared a biographical sketch of Noguchi’s life in the service of science and sent reprints of it out in answer to inquiries, together with his favourite photograph of Noguchi.
In Japan, Kobayashi Sakae and his friends founded the Noguchi Hideyo Memorial Association in June 1928 when a memorial service for Noguchi was held in Tokyo. The Association’s aims included the preservation of his birthplace as a museum, where the story of the crippled peasant boy who by his unswerving dedication and hard work rose to international fame is promoted. Another, smaller exhibition commemorates his life and achievements at the Association’s headquarters in Tokyo. In Aizu Wakamatsu, the clinic where Dr Watanabe restored the use of his hand now as a café-cum-Noguchi-museum, while the street where is stand has been named after him. In 2002, the Noguchi Hideyo Memorial Foundation was established with offices in Tokyo and New York. Noguchi’s achievements, moreover, commemorated in Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Brazil and Ghana: Ecuador even has a primary school named after him.
Both Americans and Japanese used Noguchi’s image for their own ends, and both sides ignored facts that detracted from it. It was not in Japan that Noguchi achieved his successes: the tightly-knit medical establishment would not accept the largely self-taught Noguchi as one of their own. At the Rockefeller Institute, he remained an exotic outsider, bound to the institute by his work and his relationship with Flexner, but not truly integrated into the scientific community.
Noguchi died far from his homeland, and from his second home, America; almost as if he had been driven to one of the farthest outposts of Western dominance in his time. After his death, thanks to Kobayashi’s tireless efforts but also in response to the needs of the modern Japanese nation state, he found entry into school textbooks as one of the heroes of Meiji Japan (1868-1912).
The emphasis has changed over the years, but Noguchi’s image has not lost its importance. And if the peasant’s son from the north has one thing in common with the Meiji emperor, it is that his image has obscured the real person behind it.
[i] Ampiah, ”Noguchi Shika”, p. 82.
[ii] Plesset, Noguchi and his Patrons, p. 244.
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.
Takahashi, Aya. “The death of Hideyo Noguchi and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research”, Research Reports (Rockefeller Archive Centner), Spring 2000, pp. 17-19. (http://archives.rockefeller.edu/publications/resrep/rr2000.pdf, accessed 11/11/04).
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.
Portrait of Noguchi Hideyo: Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures, National Diet Library, Tokyo
Look and Learn: History Picture Archive (both credited to Wellcome Collection):
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Note on ‘Medical Researchers’ Picture
According to the caption for the picture of the medical researchers, Helen Russell, too, died in 1928. This, however, seems to be an error. Helen Russell came from a Edinburgh family of distinguished medics. Born in 1888 (or possibly 1898), she studied pathology at a time when few women did, as did her elder sister Sybil (1895-1978), who preceded Helen to the Gold Coast in 1924 where she practised as an obstetrician until her retirement in 1950. Helen worked as a pathologist at the Research Institute in Accra under Noguchi and Youn. After the two died of yellow fever, in what she wrote of as the white man’s grave, she herself suffered a severe and prolonged breakdown of her health, but she survived and returned to Edinburgh in 1931. She worked as a medic in various institutions until her retirement in 1962, after which she devoted her time to writing and tapestry work. She died in 1987. See E.H. Jellinek, “The Russells of Edinburgh: A Medical Dynasty”, Proc R Coll Physicians Edinb 2001; 31:342-351. https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/journal/issue/vol31_no4/Q_The_Russells.pdf
Links to Noguchi Memorial Sites in Japan (selection):
In Fukushima prefecture:
1. Hideyo Noguchi Memorial Hall 野口英世記念館 (Noguchi Hideyo Kinenkan) in Iwashiro: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7711.html
See also (in Japanese) https://www.noguchihideyo.or.jp/sp/kinenkai/history.html
2. ‘Noguchi Hideyo Seishun Street’: https://www.tohokukanko.jp/en/attractions/detail_1742.html
“Experience the location where Hideyo Noguchi spent his youth and walk the streets where he decided to become a doctor”
3. Aizu Wakamatsu City also has a site with basic information about Noguchi and lists of related institutions and organizations (in Japanese):
Noguchi Hideyo Memorial Hall (野口英世記念会館 Noguchi Hideo Kinen Kaikan; the exhibition hall appears to have closed down)