Forgotten Women: Ruby Hirose

In the 1940s and 50s, polio was a national epidemic. Also known as infantile paralysis, the disease killed several thousand children as it ran its course, leaving some with permanent disabilities. Today, however, as a result of a long and intense vaccination campaign, polio has been eradicated in the United States. Enter Japanese-American bacteriologist and biochemist Dr. Ruby Hirose, who contributed to the development of an effective polio vaccine at the same time that her family was imprisoned in U.S internment camps.

Dr. Ruby Hirose at her lab bench, likely taken during the time that she worked for Merrell Laboratories.

 

The child of Japanese immigrants, Hirose was part of the Nisei generation—a second generation of Japanese-Americans who grew up amid the Japanese culture of their parents and the American culture of the public school system. Hirose was very vocal about this experience. In an interview she gave during her time at the University of Washington, Ruby discussed the experiences of both herself and her family as they attempted to find their place in the country. Of particular note in her interview is that her family’s leases were held under her name; at the time, the Naturalization Act of 1870 did not extend citizenship rights to ethnic groups beyond African Americans, which made Ruby, who was born in the country, the first citizen in her family and the only one eligible to hold the leases.

After obtaining both her bachelors and masters from the University of Washington, Hirose went on to obtain her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, receiving her doctorate in 1932. Her time at the University of Cincinnati was marked by both success and leadership. In 1931, she not only received a Moos Fellowship in Internal Medicine, but also was elected to a national honorary women’s chemical fraternity, where she served as its vice president. Her thesis focused on the enzyme thrombin, which is critical to blood clotting.

Over the course of her career, Hirose’s research contributed to a wide range of topics. In addition to her contributions to the polio vaccine, she made advances in improving relief for hay fever sufferers. She published a pharmaceutical study of the medicinal herb Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), taught microbiology at the University of Indiana, and worked at a series of veteran hospitals. In 1940, Hirose was recognized by the American Chemical Society for her contributions to the field.

Dr. Hirose’s contributions stand out not only for the diversity and relevance of her work, but also for how narrowly she came to not conducting that work at all. When Hirose’s family members were sent to internment camps in WWII for the simple fact that they were Japanese, Ruby was spared, not because she was an American citizen, but because she had moved from Washington. Working in the Midwest, away from the West coast, Hirose was able to stay in Ohio and continue her research.

 

A sign posted during WWII, directing the removal of Japanese-Americans from their neighborhoods of residence to the internment camps.