The one thing that may have trumped Irene Uchida’s scientific accomplishments was her personality.
Feisty, fun-loving and opinionated, Dr. Uchida dedicated her life to genetics research, making history in the 1960s by being the first scientist to link radiation exposure in women throughout their lives to Down syndrome in their children.
Her chromosome research, which stretched into the evenings while working at laboratories at the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, McMaster University and Oshawa General Hospital, led to fewer X-rays on women and a greater understanding of the causes of Down syndrome. “It was another bit of information that changed the practice of medicine,” said geneticist and friend Albert Chudley.
The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Dr. Uchida was interned during the Second World War in British Columbia’s Slocan Valley and went on to rise to the top of a new, male-dominated field of science. Her distinguished career as a world-renowned geneticist led to her being made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1993.
Dr. Uchida died July 30 at a nursing home in Toronto at the age of 96, having suffered from dementia since at least 2000.
She started her landmark radiation studies, ones she would spend her whole life probing, in Winnipeg in the 1960s. When not diagnosing children with rare birth defects who were brought into the lab, she was exposing human blood cells and female mice to low-dose radiation in an attempt to track the progression of an abnormal splitting of chromosomes that causes Down syndrome.
Her discovery that abdominal radiation exposure in women increased the chances of birth defects such as Down syndrome in their kids made her a science star. “It was really her influence that made people concerned about preventing women who are pregnant from getting unnecessary exposure to radiation,” Dr. Chudley said.
The findings, while remarkable, were also controversial. “I became very unpopular with the radiologists,” Dr. Uchida said in an autobiographical letter.
Brilliant and demanding – of herself and those around her – Dr. Uchida was known for correcting her nieces’ grammar, engaging in long debates where she was always right and giving “backhanded compliments” to lab assistants aiming to please their esteemed boss.
While her inquisitive, unapologetic style may have been off-putting for some, those closest to her admired her frankness, even if it made the stubborn scientist difficult to be around at times. “She spoke her mind and she would say what she thought,” said her niece Lynn Yamazaki. “If you were really sensitive, you would hate her.”
But her ability to charm came naturally. Friends and family say that while the gregarious scientist rarely showed her emotional side, she was humble, generous – her nieces often accompanied her abroad to Australia, Hawaii and Mexico – and unflinchingly dedicated to science. “The lab was her existence,” said Norma Christie, a close friend and former colleague.
Dr. Uchida’s love of people, desire to give back and admiration for science likely fuelled her intense pursuit to understand human genetics. In a book about her life written by Terry Watada called Seeing the Invisible: The Story of Dr. Irene Uchida, she said, “Through genetics, you can learn the cause of a person’s problems and try to help them.”
An education interrupted
Born April 4, 1917, to Shizuko Takano and Sentaro Uchida, a successful small businessman who owned a Japanese bookstore in Vancouver, Ayako (Irene) Uchida earned her English nickname from a grade-school piano teacher who found her real name too hard to pronounce. She was the second oldest of four girls, and had a half brother from her father’s previous marriage.
Her parents raised the family on Yale Street in Vancouver’s east end, taking them to Protestant church and encouraging music lessons. The popular Irene ended up playing violin, organ and piano as a young woman and spent much of her spare time watching the Japanese-Canadian baseball team, the Asahi.
When she was 21, she attended the University of British Columbia, where she studied English literature and developed a lifelong passion for grammar. Her nieces said conversations with their aunt would often turn to words, with Dr. Uchida lecturing for hours on the correct use of further and farther or debating the difference between earth and dirt.