Irene Uchida: Seeing the Truly Wonderful
Mid-August, I learned of the passing of Irene Ayako Uchida, the highly acclaimed and honoured geneticist, on July 30th in Toronto. She was 96 years old. She truly was as her obituary contended a “feisty, fun-loving and gracious” woman. It went on to tell the basic facts of her life. But there is so much more to her remarkable character.
I met her because of the Bukkyo Tozen book project about the history of Buddhism in Canada. The Toronto Buddhist Church hired her or at least asked her to edit the manuscript. She did study English Literature at UBC before WWII. My first meeting with her was memorable.
The church had kindly arranged a lunch for us in an Oakville restaurant. Everything was rather cordial until the waiter approached us at the table. He asked if he could bring us drinks. I said, “Diet Coke please.” Irene was not impressed. She blurted out, “Diet Coke? What kind of drink is that for a man? Bring him a Scotch. Put some ice in it if it’s too strong for him.” I was flustered but not offended. I looked at my watch for some reason and said, “Okay.” As I said, I wasn’t offended but bemused at the audacity of the woman. That was something I had to get used to nevertheless.
During the editing process, she sent me notes with whole pages crossed out and one word scrawled in the margins: “boring.” She questioned everything she didn’t understand and there was plenty since I’m not sure she was Buddhist. We also argued over the word “diaspora.” I used it to describe the aftermath of WWII and the Japanese Canadian dispersal. Irene insisted the term was exclusive to the expulsion of the Jews from the Middle East. I felt it could apply to the Japanese Canadians since the contemporary use of the word, Greek in origin, referred to all kinds of scattered populations. I deferred to her judgement in the end.
I was later commissioned to write her biography for a children’s book (Seeing the Invisible: the Story of Dr. Irene Uchida, Umbrella Press, Toronto 1998). I actually liked the idea of seeing her and working with her again. Despite her brusque moments, I found her to be charming, light-hearted and brilliant. During our interviews for the book, I learned a great deal about the woman that made her highly relatable and deeply admirable at the same time.
Irene during her childhood in Vancouver experienced tragic loss. Her best friend, Marion Gross, died in a traffic accident. Ayako (as she was known then) cried for days and was given her friend’s ring, which she wore for the rest of her life. Her sister Sachi too died in Japan of TB. Her mother had taken her there for the “better hospitals,” but to no avail. Such tragedies imprinted on Irene the desire to help people.
As I said, she went to UBC to study English Literature. An ideal field of study since her family owned two bookstores and her aunt Chitose Uchida had been the first Japanese Canadian to study at UBC. While enrolled, she began writing for The New Canadian. The editor Tommy Shoyama trolled the student population to find writers and Irene was only too willing to help.
I could only imagine her time with the paper. The arguments! After all, the equally flamboyant Muriel Kitagawa was there as well. Frank Moritsugu, Casey Oyama and a host of other intelligent and opinionated writers were on board at one time or another. The scholar Midge Ayukawa once confessed to being devastated by a detailed and cutting criticism of a piece she wrote. She was a teenager at the time and hadn’t developed that thick skin she needed to defend her various academic papers in the years to come. She was disincentivized to write for the paper. And the gentle intellectual Tom Shoyama was in the middle of all this! I can only imagine what he thought. Still, it must’ve been a thrilling time, filled with lively discussion, exchange of ideas and inspired by purpose and a sense of justice.
In 1940, Irene went to Japan with her sister, Kazuko, to visit her mother and baby sister, Junko, who had travelled there to live. Eventually Irene decided to leave and boarded a ship out of Yokohama. It was to be the last boat to Canada with the outbreak of war. It is interesting to note, the first and newly ordained Nisei minister, the Reverend Kenryu Tsuji, was also on that same boat. He later established the church in Toronto.
Irene spent most of the war in the internment camp at Lemon Creek though she was initially with her father, brother, sister-in-law and children in the self-supporting camp Christina Lake. Her friend Hide Hyodo, Supervisor for Education for the internment camps, had written to her for help. Irene then established a school at Lemon Creek and became its principal. She threw herself into the job with gusto. Her compassion for the suffering caused her to help as many of the students and their families as possible. Characteristic of her concern was to turn her shack into a library. Students came and reveled in the books and loved to study in her place and presence.
After the war, her father left for Japan on the repatriation program. Her brother and family went out on their own. Her mother and sisters remained in Japan. She was alone. Fortunately, the United Church offered her a place to stay and financial support to attend the University of Toronto. She went east to meet her glorious future.
Science is a rewarding and challenging career. Young people going into science must keep an open mind to all ideas in an effort to find every possible way to help people.
Irene Ayako Uchida passed away on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, in Toronto. She left behind a legacy of research, achievement and helping so many less fortunate than her. Perhaps her greatest contribution was finding the prevention to one of childhood’s most debilitating conditions.
Toronto after WWII and until about 1949 was closed to Japanese Canadians unless you were a student at the university. So during the mid-1940s, Irene joined the likes of Wes Fujiwara who had been a student at the U of T since before the war. She must’ve looked him up since he was Muriel Kitagawa’s brother. They all knew one another – had to in order to escape the racism and to build a semblance of a community. Thus by the 1950s Japanese Canadian businesses, organizations and institutions, Nisei dances, charity events, contests, and clubs in church flourished mostly in the Dundas and Spadina part of town.
After completing her degree in English Literature (thus cementing her lifelong love affair with grammar), she applied for an MA in social work. Iinstead, she was encouraged to study genetics after an introductory course given by Dr. Norma Ford Walker. She agreed. It was a way to help people on a microscopic level. “I like things that I can see,” she said to me. “I was lousy at chemistry because I couldn’t see what I was doing. In chemistry, you put all this stuff together and you don’t know what’s going on. There’s nothing to see.” Social work’s loss was society’s gain.
There were many obstacles to her progress in her education. One was the racism of the times. She confessed to me that some of her professors did not like her in their precious school and so tormented her with epithets that surprised and stung. Her determination and tenacity however drove her to graduate with a PhD in 1951. She immediately left for work at the Hospital for Sick Children as an assistant to Dr. Norma Ford Walker, studying the genetics of twins. They hoped to find ways to understand birth defects.
Eventually, she opened her own genetics unit in Winnipeg, an opportunity offered to her by her good friend Dr. Bruce Chown. She felt Toronto doctors gave up too soon on Down Syndrome children. All they advised was to put them into institutions and forget about them. After studying genetics at the University of Wisconsin, she worked at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital for the next nine years. She made some amazing discoveries during her tenure: she found an extra chromosome in babies with severe defects. She also found a possible link between X-rays and Down syndrome. She ascertained the link after travelling all over Ontario to interview mothers with affected children. Expectant mothers today are warned against exposure to X-rays during pregnancy because of her work.
From that point onwards, she achieved many distinctions and was given even more honours. She became Director of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg; Director of the Cytogenetics laboratory at McMaster University Medical Centre; and later Director of Cytogenetics at Oshawa General Hospital, and Professor Emeritus in the departments of Pediatrics and Pathology at McMaster University. She received honorary degrees from both the University of Western Ontario and McMaster University. She received much recognition for her many contributions to science, including Officer of the Order of Canada.
One of the last times I visited her, she showed me her Order of Canada medal. I could see she was extremely proud of the achievement. I asked her innocently enough when she got the award. She stiffened and corrected me, “I was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1993.” Always Irene.
I miss her irascible and rascal nature. She was part of a coterie of Nisei who were hard to get to know, but once revealed the rewards were great. There were many characters, quirky and admirable. Wes Fujiwara always had a smile that belied the depths of experience in his life. Tom Shoyama’s calm and contemplative exterior exuded intelligence, compassion for Japanese Canadians and warmth. And Irene Uchida always had a twinkle in her eye that told me to take her seriously but with a grain of salt and love in the heart. She was truly wonderful to behold.
Upon hearing of Irene’s passing, I raised a glass of scotch to her memory. I took it neat, just the way she would’ve liked me to have it.