Born on August 30th, 1904, Ruby Hirose was the oldest child of Shiusaka and Tome Hirose. Native to 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 nationals 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 this time.
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 crops in. Hirose recalled that her father worked hard for their education, but was worried he’d never be able to provide financially.
Hirose and her siblings were some of the first Japanese-American children to attend an American/predominantly white primary school. 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, with the youngest sibling aged 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.
In an interview with Stanford University’s survey of race relations which lasted from 1924-1927, 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 woman surrounded by white Americans – and how that affected her faith, her friends, and lifestyle.
Interestingly, the interview with Ruby Hirose is untitled, labeled only with “Survey of Race Relations”, “Major Document”, and “No. 159” on the first page. The interview states that she was 19 at the time, just a sophomore at UW (link below).
Hirose 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 in 1928.
Hirose moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to earn her Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1932. While there, she was active in the Iota Sigma Pi sorority, which a quick search will tell you is the National Honor Society for Women in Chemistry founded in 1902. Hirose was mentioned in November’s social calendar for the, “U.C. Fraternitys at Work and Play” piece in the November 2nd, 1930 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer:
“The montly meeting of Iota Sigma Pi, chemical fraternity, was held Tuesday evening in the chemistry building. The speaker was Miss Emily Hess, Miss Elsie Hauck, Miss Ruby Hirose, and Miss Thelma Crouch. These members, graduate students of the University, gave short talks on the nature of their research problem. Miss Hirose is doing research work on the department of internal medicine; Miss Hauck is in the lithographic department and the Misses Hess and Crouch are now obtaining their degrees in organic chemistry. The hostesses at this meeting were Mrs. Helen Norris Moore and Miss Frances Johnson. ”
In 1932, Ruby Hirose had finally achieved her goal of being a doctor, publishing the thesis, “Nature of Thrombin and Its Manner of Action”. You can read it through open access here → or check out the sources for the full pdf.
After earning her Ph.D, Hirose was employed at the University. It was here that she published research in cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry, and bacteriology. She followed the path of her doctorate thesis, publishing, “The Second Phase of Thrombin Action: Fibrin Resolution,” in The American Journal of Physiology in 1934.
A note: thrombin is an important enzyme used in blood clotting mechanisms. You can read more about thrombin here →.
In 1938, Hirose 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 few 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.
Just two months after the attacks at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which dictated the relocation of folk of Japanese descent, both citizens and non-citizens, to concentration camps outside of the U.S. Pacific military zone. During World War II, three direct members Hirose’s family, and extended were incarcerated in these camps.
By this time, Tome and her sister Fumi had already died. Her brother Kimeo was interned at the Colorado River Relocation Center, and her father Shiusaku was interned with her sister Mary’s family at the Minidoka Relocation Center.
Ruby was able to escape this fate and continued to research and teach during the war. In 1946, Hirose and associates published, “Diffusion of sulfonamides from emulsified ointment bases”. You can access the abstract here →.
In 1958, Hirose moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania to work as a bacteriologist at the Lebanon Veterans Administration Hospital.
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 was truly a remarkable scientist. In the face of adversity, she would only accept excellence from herself. Her hard work 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 being betrayed by them. 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.
Auburn Pioneer Cemetery, “Hirose Family”, webpage.
Auburn Pioneer Cemetery, “Dr. Ruby Hirose, American Chemist and Microbiologist”. Posted August 7, 2013. http://auburnpioneercemetery.net/blog/2013/08/an-american-born-japanese-girl-scientist/
Yoo, David (2000). Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture Among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. University of Illinois Press.
Bernard F. Le Bonniec, in Handbook of Proteolytic Enzymes (Third Edition), 2013
National Archives, “Japanese Relocation During World War II”. Last updated April 10th, 2017. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation
All newspaper clippings were obtained from newspapers.com, an online archive of newspaper scans ranging from the 1700’s – 2000’s. You can subscribe monthly to access this content or sign up for a free 7 day trial.
Cover Photo: Smithsonian Archives
“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):
Clipping of The Daily News out of Lebanon, PA, announcing Dr. Hiroses’ move to the Lebanon Veterans Administration Hospital, Oct. 13th, 1958.