Ruby Hirose, Biochemist & Bacteriologist
In the midst of a pandemic, scientists and lab researchers are rushing to find a suitable and effective vaccine. This work today would not be accessible if it was not for Ruby Hirose, a Japanese-American biochemist and bacteriologist. She was born on August 30, 1904 in Kent, Washington and is considered part of the nisei generation or a second-generation Japanese American. Hirose was born into a community of predominantly white families, and she struggled with racial discrimination growing up. Her parents were first-generation Japanese immigrants, and her father worked in the food canning business while her mother was involved with dried goods.
Hirose was the oldest of eight children, though two of her siblings passed away before reaching adulthood. She and the rest of her siblings went on to graduate from Auburn High School in Auburn, Washington, received degrees, and kept education a priority throughout their lives. The Hirose children also received an education in the Japanese language, culture, and grammar at the Thomas School for the Japanese language. Her family was very devoted to Christianity, and she was devoted to Methodism, an active participant on and off the campus at Methodist youth organizations.
After high school, Hirose went on to receive her Pharmacy Bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in 1926 and her Master’s of Pharmacology in 1928. At the University of Washington, Hirose studied the medicinal properties of Hydrastis Canadensis, a plant collected by Lewis and Clark, and her study “A Pharmaceutical Study of Hydrastis Canadensis” was published in 1930 in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. She then set out on a search to obtain her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and chose the University of Cincinnati. She graduated with her Doctorate in 1932 and claimed that Ohio was her source of flourishment and growth and allowed her to carry out her studies as a passionate and devoted researcher. She was a part of the Iota Sigma Pi Society, a National Honor Society for Women in Chemistry, where she was able to research internal medicine. Hirose continued her employment at the University of Cincinnati, where she published research papers on cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, and bacteriology.
In 1938, she was hired by the research division at the William S. Merrell Company and began her research on serums and antitoxins. Her research contributed to the development of an effective infantile paralysis (polio) vaccine. In the 1940s and 1950s, polio was a global epidemic that infected 57,879 people and killed 3,145, leaving some victims in a permanent state of paralysis. Although it was not as deadly as SARS-CoV-2, polio was the most feared disease of the 20th century and paralyzed around 15,000 people a year. With the contribution of Hirose and other skilled laboratory experts, polio was eradicated in 1955.
In 1940, the American Chemical Society hosted a ceremony which 300 members, only 10 of whom were women, attended, and Hirose was recognized for her remarkable accomplishments in the field of biochemistry. While Dr. Hirose was working in labs in Ohio, her family was sent to internment camps during WWII two months after the attack of Pearl Harbor because they were Japanese. Hirose, however, avoided imprisonment because she moved to the Midwest, which was far away from the American coast.
In 1958, Dr. Hirose moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where she worked as a bacteriologist at the Lebanon Veterans Administration Hospital and taught microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ruby Hirose died on October 7, 1960 at age 56 from acute myeloid leukemia, and her family requested that she be buried at the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery in Auburn, Washington.
Ruby Hirose’s legacy lives on through her devotion and dedication to her research and publications. As she once stated, “I needed to mingle with my own… who understood my problems and frustrations.” Throughout her life, she was looked down upon solely because she was a woman and minority, but Hirose transgressed the boundaries that marginalized her. Her efforts, research, and contribution to the vaccine for polio also allowed researchers and lab experts to use her findings for other vaccines. She showcased her talents through the holistic approach to the science field, and her story continues to inspire women of all ages to stay passionate regardless of stigma. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, it is essential to learn about the women who have given the world a token of knowledge to allow current scientists to work hard in finding a vaccine to catalyze a past-life we constantly yearn for.
by Kelly Nguyen
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