Born on August 30th, 1904, Ruby Hirose was the oldest child of Shiusaka and Tome Hirose. Born in the White River area in Washington State, Ruby and her siblings were never registered as the natural American citizens they were. Instead, they were listed as from Japan and as Japanese, instead of Japanese-American. At the time, this may not have presented an imminent danger- but would play a role during Hirose’s mid-life as World War II raged. This would result in her family’s internment in U.S. camps during the second world war.
Hirose and her siblings were some of the first Japanese-American second generation, or nisei, children to attend an American/predominantly white primary education- all six would graduate from Auburn High School in Auburn, WA. They also received an education in Japanese language, grammar, etc at the nearby Thomas School for Japanese Language. Hirose was the oldest of six children, with the youngest children being almost 8 years younger than her. She had grown up in a very devout Christian house, and was a devout Methodist herself. Ruby was active with on and off campus Methodist youth organizations as well as national organizations like the Y.W.C.A. during her time at the University of Washington.
Ruby is part of what is known as the nisei generation- the first generation of Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil, but the second to live the difficult life of an immigrant’s story. Ruby’s father, Shiusaka, was supposedly in the food canning business. Her mother’s family was involved in dry goods. After their business failed, the two decided to move to the U.S. to try their hand at a new opportunity. They were part of the issei or first generation of Japanese immigrants to move to the U.S. Here, they hoped that farming was a worthy mode of income- but systemic oppressive tactics and lack of opportunity caused them to buy a piece of land that was close to impossible to grow plants in. Hirose recalled that her father worked hard for their education, but was worried he’d never be able to provide financially.
In an interview with an unnamed source, Hirose recalls aspects of her childhood. The abject poverty her parents faced, her mother and sister’s terminal illnesses, the soil they tried to nurture their crops out of, her views of growing up as a Japanese-American surrounded by white Europeans- and how that affected her faith, her friends, and lifestyle. Hirose graduated from Auburn High and went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree from University of Washington in 1926 in pharmacy; later she would earn her Master’s degree in pharmacology (1928). She was the first nisei child in the white river area to do so. Interestingly, the interview with Ruby Hirose is untitled, labeled only with “Survey of Race Relations”, “Major Document”, and “No. 159” on the first page. A link is provided at the bottom. The interview states that she was 19 at the time, just a sophomore at UW.
Hirose moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to earn her Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1932. She had finally achieved her goal of being a doctor. After earning her PhD, Hirose was employed at the University. It was here that she published research in cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry, and bacteriology. In 1938, she was hired on by the William S. Merrill Chemical Company. There, she researched antitoxins and serums. It was this research that contributed greatly to the development of an effective infantile paralysis (polio) vaccine. It is also here that we can assume one of the most famous photos of her was taken (pictured below). The original caption cited by the Smithsonian archives as, “”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 ædesensitize 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.” In 1940 the American Chemical Society held a convention. It was noted that of the 300 members in the William Merrill Company, 10 were women, one of them Ruby. Despite a report saying that opportunities for women were increasing.
At the beginning of World War II, Hirose became professionally associated with a couple collegiate institutes including the Kettering Laboratory of Applied Physiology, University of Cincinnati, the Univ. of Cincinnati department of science where she taught microbiology and public health, and the University of Indiana. She was also associated with several local Veteran’s hospitals working as a bacteriologist. During this time (1942), Hirose’s family was incarcerated in U.S. created Japanese internment camps in Washington state. She was able to escape this fate herself because of being located in Ohio- a landlocked state in the midwest.
In 1958, at the age of 54, Hirose joined the Lebanon Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Lebanon, PA.
Ruby Sakae Hirose died on October 7th, 1960, at the age of 56 from acute myeloid leukemia. She died in Pennsylvania, thousands of miles away from her siblings and family. She is buried at the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery in Auburn, WA per request of her family.
Hirose is truly a remarkable scientist. In the face of adversity, she rose to her dreams. Those dreams would ultimately help millions in the world fight against polio, and other deadly diseases. Hirose gave much to the country and the people of her society, despite them having turned their backs during war time. Instead of being discouraged by her upbringing, or by her family’s incarceration, Hirose relied on the strength she inherited from her parents to change the way we understand the world. We can learn much about strength and accountability from Hiroses’ work.
“Association News.” American Journal of Public Health and the Nations Health 29.8 (1939): 964–971. Print.
Read some of her papers!
Here’s her application into the American Chemical Society circa 1939 (bottom right):