An American-Born Japanese Girl Scientist

Alternate post title: Dr. Ruby Hirose, American Chemist and Microbiologist

Photo of Dr. Ruby Hirose from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dr. Ruby Hirose. Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

This photograph of Dr. Ruby Hirose has been maintained for decades in the archives of no less than the Smithsonian Institution. Although undated, the associated copy and her evident age would suggest it was taken in the mid-1940s when she was working in the Midwest for Merrell Laboratories. She was probably in her late 30’s or early 40’s at the time it was taken and had long since earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati.

As Dr. Hirose worked tirelessly to advance vaccine technologies to improve the quality of life of her fellow Americans, her father and siblings were imprisoned in American internment camps for the crime of having Japanese ancestry at a time when Japan was our enemy. Why wasn’t Dr. Hirose herself subjected to similar confinement?

Only Japanese and Japanese-Americans (62% of those interned were American citizens) residing on the west coast were subject to internment during the War. Had there been any possibility that a Japanese submarine could have docked silently off the coast of Ohio under the cover of darkness, nearby Japanese communities would undoubtedly have been viewed as potential spies for the Japanese Empire—just as they were on the west coast—and “evacuated” to the most remote and harshest corners of the country until the War’s end.

While we might like to believe that Dr. Hirose was exempted from internment due to her status as a full-fledged American citizen or because of the importance of her work to her fellow Americans, such was sadly not the case. Only an accident of geography kept Dr. Hirose from enduring the same fate as the rest of her family during the War.

Dr. Hirose died in Pennsylvania in 1960, having never married. She was survived by one brother and two sisters. One sister, Toki, was married to Dr. Isaac Kawasaki of  Hawaii; he is credited with suggesting to General Emmons (the Commanding General and Military Governor of Hawaii during the War) that interning the Japanese in Hawaii would be the wrong course of action—not on constitutional or moral grounds, but simply because it would have been impractical. The General evidently heeded this advice; there was no “evacuation” of Japanese or Japanese-Americans from Hawaii—despite the attack on Pearl Harbor that initiated the war with Japan.

After her death, Dr. Hirose’s brother and sisters arranged for her remains to be returned to Washington State. She is buried in the family plot alongside her parents in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.

Full summary from the Smithsonian Archives:

Biochemist and bacteriologist Ruby Hirose researched serums and antitoxins at the William S. Merrell Laboratories. In 1940, Hirose was among ten women recognized by the American Chemical Society for accomplishments in chemistry, and later made major contributions to the development of vaccines against infantile paralysis. The original caption to this photograph read: “A hay fever sufferer herself, Dr. R. Hirose, American-born Japanese girl scientist on the research staff of the Wm. S. Merrell biological laboratories, has found a way to improve the pollen extracts used to desensitize hay fever sufferers. … The idea of treating the pollen with alum to increase its effectiveness developed while Dr. Hirose was working on alum-precipitated toxoid for protection against diphtheria.