Hiromu Tsuchiya (1887-1971)

Hiromu Tsuchiya, 1935
Hiromu Tsuchiya, 1935

Hiromu Tsuchiya was born in Osaka, Japan on July 29, 1887. He entered the United States in 1905 to study at University of Missouri-Columbia. It took Tsuchiya eight years to graduate and, although direct evidence is lacking, it is easy to imagine that he faced a hard adjustment to life in Missouri and to requirements of the university. He persisted. He may have hoped to enter medical school, for Mizzou’s yearbook, The Savitar, identifies him as a member of the university medical society at the time of his graduation, 1913. He was also a member of Corda Fratres, a liberal fraternal organization open to women as well as men, one that had as its motto “Above all nations is humanity.” This was a belief that clearly sustained Tsuchiya.

From UM-Columbia, Tsuchiya entered Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, where for seven years he studied parasitology (or, as Johns Hopkins termed it at the time, protozoology). Did he choose this path because he was denied any chance to become a physician – or did he gladly accept the challenge to study in a field to his liking at so distinguished a university? We may never know. He did recall later (in the context of donating funds to establish a scholarship at Hopkins) that he endured substantial deprivation during his years in Baltimore. In 1930 he graduated with a Doctor of Science in protozoology.

Having spent fifteen years of his life in the United States at this point, he evidently wanted to stay on in this country rather than return to Japan, but there were formidable obstacles to this goal. Positions were scarce in the Great Depression; moreover, restrictive federal immigration laws enacted in the 1920s had made it virtually impossible for Japanese nationals to become American citizens. Fortunately, Tsuchiya found a patron and protector in Jacques Bronfenbrenner, head of Bacteriology and Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis. Bronfenbrenner offered him a research fellowship and, once Tsuchiya’s abilities were proven, extended it for three additional years (1930-1934). It is likely that Bronfenbrenner recalled his own sponsorship and hiring in the United States by a Japanese scientist, Hideyo Noguchi, decades earlier.

Tsuchiya engaged in research on various pathogenic microorganisms in the department laboratories, which were housed in what is now known as the West Building, above the Dispensary. He also assisted the chief in preparation for lectures and over time was assigned to address the students himself. Beginning in 1933, he offered his own course in “medical zoology,” the formal term of choice for parasitology. Students loved Tsuchiya’s erudition and also the wit with which he delivered his presentation on public health. More than one of them over the years recalled with gratitude an “irrepressible sense of fun” in his classroom and laboratory.

In 1934 Tsuchiya was promoted to the entry-level academic rank of instructor, a modest confirmation of his teaching skills – there was no institutional tenure track in those days. Friends and colleagues saw his persistence and patience over the years as expressions of “nimmu,” the Japanese obligation to one’s work. He knew his talents were needed, if not fully acknowledged. In 1940, Tsuchiya was put in charge of the clinical laboratories in his specialty at Barnes Hospital, a begrudging promotion after so many years. By this time, with both Europe and East Asia engulfed in war, it was widely seen as necessary to plan for U.S. involvement in terms of staffing of essential services. Few in St. Louis yet guessed that it would be a Japanese military strike that would involve this country.

The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 caused Tsuchiya to panic for fear he would be arrested and punished for his alien status. His own account appears as an episode in a novel about Japanese Americans – Hawaii, End of the Rainbow (1964) – written by an alumnus of Washington University School of Medicine, Kazuo Miyamoto:

I was ashamed and at the same time was afraid to stir out of [my] apartment. I would have starved. It was a miserable three day hermit life. On the fourth day there was a commotion in front of my house on Forrest (sic) Park Blvd. Soon there was a loud refrain, “We want Dr. Tsuchida (sic). We want Dr. Tsuchida,” as you would hear on the football field. I feared a mob action and I peeped carefully through the window, pulling the curtain aside a wee bit. To my relief I saw about twenty of my students out there. Naturally I went out and was immediately surrounded. “Come back to the classes,” they pressed me. “But I am so ashamed of what me country did to America, I cannot face you in classes,” I apologized. “That’s none of your doing. Come back to school. We need you.” You know, they forcefully escorted me to school. Everyone has been considerate and kind and I am doing me best to teach the students parasitology and tropical medicine that will come in handy in the South Pacific and the Far Eastern countries (Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Tuttle, p. 484-85).

Support for Tsuchiya’s presence at the School of Medicine was not universal, unfortunately. A student of the period, Lawrence O’Neal, MD, recalls that Tsuchiya was “heckled” on the streets of the West End and that Bronfenbrenner took measures to ward off possibly serious threats by driving Tsuchiya to the safety of his working environment. In 1943, Tsuchiya was promoted to assistant professor. His research was directed mainly toward understanding and treating amebiasis. Even at this late date, however, there were faculty members on his committee who regarded his work as “essentially technical” – i.e. beneath standards for a tenured teaching appointment.

At some point during his life in St. Louis, Tsuchiya married. Nothing is known about his wife, Ai Tsuchiya, other than she predeceased him. The sources for this, his death notice in local St. Louis newspapers, reveal also that Tsuchiya was survived by a brother, Tatsuo, and a sister, Michiko Sakai, both of whom had remained in Japan. Again evidence is missing, so we are forced to wonder about the Tsuchiya family – were they ever able to travel and enjoy reunions at any time in their lives?

Tsuchiya retired at the end of the academic year in 1952, tellingly on the same day as Bronfenbrenner. Like his old boss, Tsuchiya was accorded emeritus status. The following year, a new chief, Arthur Kornberg, took charge under an updated name, Microbiology Department. When Tsuchiya made known that he found retirement “difficult to accept,” colleagues recall that he was welcomed back and assigned to resume lectures and clinical work. As earlier, he had a way with students. “As one result,” so testifies a memorial statement by David Schlessinger and George Kobayashi, “classes developed the custom of presenting him with a gift at the end of each term of lectures. These mementos . . . he treasured with characteristic embarrassment and pleasure.”

Following Ai’s death, Tsuchiya’s own declining health led him to declare a second retirement in 1965. When pressed for a reason, he stated privately that “he did not want to depress friends with a feeble presence.” He was cared for in nursing home in his last years. He had the satisfaction of living to see the dedication in 1970 and occasionally to visit first year of operation of the McDonnell Medical Sciences Building, where the laboratories and offices of the Microbiology Department were relocated.

Tsuchiya died on December 2, 1971. He named his department as his principal beneficiary.

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