While not exactly political, she pushed for Japanese civil liberties as a member of the Japanese Canadian Citizens League in Vancouver, and also as a founding member of, and contributor to, the New Canadian, a Japanese-Canadian newspaper.
In 1940, in the middle of her education at UBC, she travelled to Japan with her sister Kay for the first time to visit her mother and sister June, who had gone there the year before seeking a Japanese education.
The country didn’t sit well with her though. She “couldn’t stand it,” June recalled, and decided to head back to Canada the next year. As luck would have it, she returned in late 1941 just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Only a month before, I had returned to Vancouver on the last ship to cross the Pacific,” Dr. Uchida wrote in the 1980s for a science textbook.
She wound up in Vancouver during the rounding up of more than 20,000 Japanese Canadians for internment. In 1942, she and her father were taken to Christina Lake in the B.C. Interior, then moved to Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley after she was asked to become principal of a grade school.
Despite living in tough, cramped conditions, she made the best of the challenge of teaching 500 children at the school. “She was facing a lot of hardships – and adventures,” Ms. Yamazaki said.
She and her father were released in 1944 and, with funding from the United Church, she set off for the University of Toronto to finish her undergraduate degree. To make money in between classes, she washed dishes and worked at a sewing factory on Spadina Avenue. “She was working very hard and she had to fight for everything.” Ms. Yamazaki said.
After graduating in 1946 with her BA, she was prepared to get a master’s degree in social work when Dr. Norma Ford Walker, who taught her introductory genetics, encouraged her to pursue the study of human chromosomes. She agreed, graduating in 1951 with a PhD in zoology.
“I went to school, I did the best I could,” Dr. Uchida said in 1994 in a video clip on her life. “This is the thing … no matter what you do, as long as you do your best. I wasn’t born with this great desire to do something” scientific.
Becoming a science star
Once she had her doctorate, Dr. Uchida moved to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to work with Dr. Walker. She stayed until 1959, studying the genetics of twins and congenital heart disease.
It was after a short fellowship in Wisconsin that Dr. Uchida attracted the attention of Harry Medovy, a pediatrician at the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital who was looking to start one of the first national cytogenetics labs there. In a bold move for the time, Dr. Medovy hired Dr. Uchida to lead the lab, a position she held from 1960 to 1969.
“She had to be better than most men,” said Dr. Chudley, the current director of the genetics program at the hospital.
By 1970, her work had received international recognition. Between 1967 and 1993, she received seven awards, including the Woman of the Century award from the Manitoba National Council of Jewish Women and the Founders Award from the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists.
After a brief stint as a visiting scientist at the University of London in England in 1969, Dr. Uchida was lured from Winnipeg by a professorship and lab-director post at McMaster University in Hamilton. She continued her radiation studies with McMaster University genetics professor Viola Freeman, who credits her genetics career to Dr. Uchida.
In 1970, three months into her job at the lab, Prof. Freeman found a blood sample belonging to a person with ring chromosome 20 syndrome, a rare disorder that causes epileptic seizures. After diagnosing the condition (“I was so damn proud”), Prof. Freeman got on Dr. Uchida’s good side – where she would stay for decades. The two became close friends, continuing Dr. Uchida’s radiation work by knocking on doors across Ontario in an attempt to get blood samples from children with Down syndrome and their parents.