National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Hideyo Noguchi: Under the microscope

by Michael Hoffman

Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928) may be Japan’s most famous scientist. His face adorns the ¥1,000 bill. His life story is legendary, folkloric. Born into wretched rural poverty, he tumbled as an infant into a hearth fire, crippling his left hand for life. No one seeing him then foresaw much of a future for him. A farmer needs two good hands. And what could a born peasant be, other than a farmer?

“There is no such thing as genius!” Noguchi proclaimed years later as a path-breaking microbiologist engaged in isolating the bacterium causing syphilis. If not genius, what? “All you need,” he said (as quoted by Atsushi Kita in “Dr. Noguchi’s Journey: A Life of Medical Search and Discovery”), “is enough test tubes, sufficient money, dedication and hard work.”

Noguchi personifies his era. As Japan reinvented itself during the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1912; 1912-26), so Noguchi reinvented himself. He was born in a farmhouse in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture. He died in equatorial Africa of yellow fever, the disease he had gone there to combat. Posthumously, his research and his medical ethics have come under harsh criticism. With this we are not concerned. Our story is his upward trajectory, which parallels and mirrors Japan’s.

“All this glory, all this fame,” he said in 1914, flush with his syphilis triumph, “is nothing compared to the love (my mother) gave me.” True enough. Shika Noguchi is a legend in her own right.

Nothing was too hard for her, no hurdle too high. Her parents away and her grandmother ill, she went to work at age 6, minding village children. She did other things too: field work, weaving, whatever brought in a little money. When a Buddhist priest opened a school to teach village children reading and writing, Shika wanted to go but couldn’t. She appealed to the priest: Would he not write out the hiragana syllabary for her so she could study on her own?

She toiled by day and studied by night. That’s the spirit she bequeathed to her son.

Noguchi at 12 was at a crossroad. His compulsory schooling was done. What next? Work? He was disabled. Higher education? That was for the sons of the rich. He was lucky. His teacher was a true educator — Sakae Kobayashi by name; 29 years old, samurai background. He saw something in Noguchi. He told Shika, according to Kita, “This is a new age for Japan. Learning comes first now, not social rank.” Keep the boy in school, he urged. Shika was easily persuaded. She’d work harder, go into debt — anything. The neighbors murmured. Who did she think she was? She ignored them. Her husband, the future scientist’s father, was a gambler and a drunk — useless. Never mind. She’d manage alone.

Four years passed. Noguchi did well at school, but then what? First things first: the hand. A new doctor had set up in the nearest city, Wakamatsu. Kanae Watanabe, the son of a traditional Confucian doctor, had trained in California. He was “modern,” “Western.” Maybe he could help. Go see him, said Kobayashi.

Yes, said Watanabe, surgery was possible. Kobayashi took up a collection. The whole village contributed. The operation was a partial success. Noguchi’s left hand, no longer a shapeless pulp, had fingers — movable fingers.

Such was the miracle of modern medicine. The peasant boy had found his calling — he’d be a doctor! Yes, but how to qualify? Go to medical school? Where would the money come from?

It was impossible. He’d have to study on his own. That, too, was impossible. Or maybe not. He was 16. He walked the 17 kilometers to Wakamatsu and showed up at Watanabe’s clinic. Would the doctor hire him as a houseboy? The doctor didn’t need a houseboy, but sympathy won out. Hired, Noguchi toiled as his mother always had — still did. He washed the floor, tended the fire, manned the reception desk. Between tasks, and far into the night, he studied.

Unbridled ambition was in the Meiji spirit. “Change was in the air,” writes Kita. “The first session of the Imperial Diet opened in 1890. … In 1891 the Tohoku Line was completed, connecting Tokyo with the northern reaches of Honshu; in 1894 the city of Fukushima saw its first electric street lamps. That same year, Japan went to war with China.”

One day a visiting friend of Watanabe’s, the pioneer Western dentist Morinosuke Chiwaki, saw Noguchi deep in a French text on pathology. This was astonishing. “I take French lessons,” Noguchi explained shyly. Also English, German and Chinese lessons, he might have added. “Look me up,” said Chiwaki, “if you come to Tokyo.”

It proved a fateful meeting. Another occurred shortly before Noguchi took Chiwaki up on his offer. This was with a microscope.

Fever had broken out — an epidemic. Watanabe was one of Japan’s first microscopists, his instrument ordered from Germany. He examined blood samples under the lens and identified the bacteria responsible. He showed his pupils. Noguchi was awed. Here was a whole new world, a whole new enemy of mankind, a vast new field of study. His future course was set.

In Tokyo, under Chiwaki’s tutelage, he passed in less than two years of private study exams that ordinarily required 10 years of university preparation. The trajectory from there was long and winding: China, the U.S., Denmark, South America, Africa. His was a tortured, driven personality. He partied as feverishly as he worked. His debts mounted. How he tried the patience of Chiwaki and his other unshakably devoted friends is a story in itself.

Another time, perhaps. We leave the reader with this parting image: the newly qualified doctor in Yokohama in November 1900, his pockets flush with cash, the reward of a marriage contract reluctantly entered into, solely for money. Before his ship sailed for San Francisco the cash was gone, sacrificed to a riotous night on the town. He went crawling back to Chiwaki — who put his own neck in the noose of moneylenders rather than let his brilliant protege miss his chance to do research in the U.S.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”