Irene Ayako Uchida (1917-2013) was a scientist who worked all over Canada - at hospitals, universities, and laboratories. She spent 15 years at the University of Toronto, three years at Oshawa General Hospital, and 22 at McMaster University in Hamilton.
Her most famous scientific accomplishment was finding the specific problem in human's genes that causes Down Syndrome. French scientists had recently discovered that people with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome. She looked into that finding, and discovered that women exposed to X-rays and other radiation could sometimes develop the genetic mutation that caused Down Syndrome in their children. She also discovered that men passed down the extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome to their children in 25% of cases.
Doctor Uchida was born in Vancouver in 1917 to Issei parents; her father owned two bookstores. She played violin and piano and was given the nickname "Irene" by her piano teacher; she loved watching the Japanese-Canadian baseball team The Vancouver Asahi play. During her childhood, one of her sisters was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Their mother had travelled back to Japan with her sister to seek medical care, but the child died there.
When she graduated from high school, she decided to study English literature at the University of British Columbia; her aunt Chitose had been the first Japanese-Canadian to enrol at UBC. She joined the Japanese Canadian Citizens League and became active in lobbying for greater civil rights; she also wrote for the newspaper The New Canadian. In 1940, when she was 23, she went to Japan for the first time: with one of her sisters, to visit her mother and another sister who had travelled there to get Japanese education. She came back in late 1941, on the very last cross-Pacific ship - Pearl Harbour would be bombed by the Japanese a month later and travel from Japan to Vancouver would end for the rest of the war.
When she arrived back in Vancouver, she, her father, her brother, and his wife and children were sent to internment camps: first in Christina Lake, and then to the Slocan Valley for the rest of the war. Doctor Uchida was made principal of a primary school in the camp, teaching 500 students. She converted her shack in the camp into a library for her students to use. Her father's two stores, their home, and their car were all confiscated by the government.
She never harboured any bitterness.
"What's the use?" she said in 1987. "Everything that comes to one is a new experience and you grow with different experiences, whether they're good or bad. There's no reason to worry or brood about it."
- the Hamilton Spectator, 2013
In 1944, they were released, and Irene's father decided to move to Japan where his wife and daughter had remained since 1940 - the Canadian government was offering a "repatriation program" that sent people of Japanese descent to Japan in exchange for prisoners of war. Doctor Uchida headed to Toronto with some financial support from the United Church of Canada. Toronto, until about 1949, was closed to Japanese Canadians - the only exception was for students at the University of Toronto. To pay for the rest of her undergraduate degree at the university, she worked as a seamstress in a factory, and as a dishwasher in a restaurant. She graduated in 1946. The professor that taught her introductory genetics encouraged her to stay in the field, and so she changed her plans from a masters in social work to a PhD in zoology, which she got in 1951.
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.
- Terry Watada
She worked at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children from 1951 to 1959, where she studied twins to learn more about the genetic basis for heart disease. She was hired away to Winnipeg, where she founded Canada's first cytogenetics laboratory ("cytogenetics" means the study of how chromosomes affect the way cells grow and change). She stayed there from 1960 to 1969, when she traveled to London, England, for a contract as a "visiting scientist."
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.
- Terry Watada
She came back to Canada to start a cytogenetics laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, and stayed there for 22 years.
While she was there, she focused on radiation. Her attention turned to Down Syndrome and she and her labmates would search out people across Ontario with a Down Syndrome diagnosis to take blood samples from them and their family members. Through this widespread effort, they were able to discover a number of new facts about Down Syndrome.
Before Doctor Uchida's research, many people believed that mothers caused Down Syndrome by becoming pregnant later in life - over 35, according to statistics at the time. Doctor Uchida was able to point out a number of causes and correct this mistaken assumption:
It was believed that because the majority of Down syndrome babies were born to mothers over 35, they were to blame.
"Even today, some doctors just send the mother in," Uchida told The Spectator in 1987 during an interview on her accomplished career and while she was head of the regional cytogenetics laboratory she started at McMaster in 1970. "But we refuse to see only the mother."
She chuckled, "We women have to stick together," but said she never considered herself a feminist and was never conscious of being a woman in a man's world.
Doctor Uchida was also political in other ways, showing solidarity for other immigrants who had been discriminated against and abused by the Canadian government:
One day in the late 1980s, her niece Karen Yamazaki recalls, Dr. Uchida took her to a special place near Victoria. It was an old cemetery that housed the remains of Chinese labourers who had died working on the Canadian Pacific Railway. "It was facing out on the open ocean and she found it deeply moving," Karen said. "She told me she liked to go there and think about these people. … It was something very unusual for her to share with me."
- The Globe and Mail, 2013
Many colleagues remember working with her fondly, from exciting lab projects to the parties she threw at her Burlington apartment:
Field trips were one of her favourite parts of these Projects, from mapping out our schedules to visiting the Down syndrome families, travelling from Thunder Bay to Sarnia to Niagara. I remember taking blood samples from patients sitting on a fire truck (thankfully not moving), at the food court in some shopping mall.
Irene was always cheerful about things. She told me a bit about her life and did not seem to be bitter about her experience in the Internment camp in the interior of BC. She was a teacher there and had a useful role.
She was a challenging and demanding supervisor, but she was also inspiring and supportive. Many colleagues will remember her editing of draft manuscripts for correct grammar, referring to her Funk and White if there were any disputes. Receiving a returned manuscript covered in red was an education in itself! But she also had a ready sense of humour and love of fun! There was never a dull moment in her laboratory, and her Japanese dinner parties are legendary. One of her tempura dinners is said to have induced labour for the birth of my son. She was always interested in the young people in her life, both her trainees and her nieces, absorbing new ideas and trying them out, like wearing jeans on her trip to Australia.
Doctor Uchida died in 2013 at the age of 96, passing away peacefully in a nursing home in Toronto. She never married or had kids. Throughout her career she published almost 100 scientific papers about aspects of her research.
Doctor Uchida has been bestowed with a number of honourary degrees, made an Officer of the Order of Canada, named a Woman of the Century for Manitoba, and given the Founders Award from the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau named her to the Science Council of Canada and in 1975 she was selected as one of 25 outstanding Ontario women as part of its celebration for International Women's Year. She is remembered for "her feistiness, her sense of humour, her love of music, and her insistence on proper grammar."
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.
- Terry Watada