“If you walk through an institution where they have Down syndrome children there, they come running to you and they hug you,” Dr. Uchida said in a 1994 video. “… (T)hey’re really very happy, happy children.”
Dr. Uchida stayed at McMaster for 22 years working with Prof. Freeman, then spent the last years of her career at Oshawa General Hospital before retiring in 1995.
‘She was tough as nails’
A party lover who enjoyed art, music and travel, Dr. Uchida was known for hosting wild dinners at her Burlington, Ont., apartment, where she would serve Japanese food and rum-soaked cherries washed down with “something good.”
She drank scotch – Glenfiddich single malt with one ice cube was the only way she’d take it – and loved to entertain. Never married, Dr. Uchida charmed audiences at genetics conferences with funny stories and sharp, at times biting, commentary.
At one conference in Helsinki during the eighties, Dr. Uchida and Prof. Freeman got the wild idea of hopping on a plane and heading to the North Pole, where they sampled reindeer meat.
Dr. Uchida’s dry humour and wit extended outside her job. “I remember at dinner one time,” Ms. Yamazaki recalled, “I said, ‘Tell us what you do,’ and she said, ‘You would never understand.’”
“So she starts talking about what she does using the biggest words she can think of, and we’re all sitting there thinking, ‘hmm, okay, can you pass the chicken?’”
One day in the late 1980s, her niece Karen Yamazaki recalls, Dr. Uchida took her to a special place near Victoria. It was an old cemetery that housed the remains of Chinese labourers who had died working on the Canadian Pacific Railway. “It was facing out on the open ocean and she found it deeply moving,” Karen said. “She told me she liked to go there and think about these people. … It was something very unusual for her to share with me.”
One of Dr. Uchida’s last public appearances came in 2001, when she sat in on a biannual genetics lecture set up in her honour at the Winnipeg hospital where she had spent the most innovative years of her career. With the help of $50,000 she donated to the hospital, the lecture series attracts top geneticists.
But big names weren’t enough to quiet the first director of the Winnipeg lab, who even in her later years had choice words for a few recipients. “It was always enjoyable that we could introduce these great world-renowned geneticists and Irene could meet with them and bring them down to earth,” Dr. Chudley said. “She was tough as nails.”
As Dr. Uchida’s years in retirement passed and her dementia worsened, one of her most loyal visitors became Sid Ikeda, the former president of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. He got to know the scientist at a 1994 event on the Second World War Japanese internment. “She was no nonsense and she just killed everyone with her humour,” Mr. Ikeda said of Dr. Uchida’s speech at the event.
The two would listen to music together, eat lunch and talk about developments in the Japanese community. He would play harmonica to her, and she would sing scattered verses of Japanese children’s and wartime songs.
A memorial for Dr. Uchida will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.
“I know her life story and I’m so inspired and motivated by people like Irene,” Mr. Ikeda said. “She was exceptional – an outstanding Japanese Canadian that we’re all proud of.”
“She was one of my favourite ladies.”
To submit an I Remember:
Send us a memory of someone we’ve recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.