Skip to main content

‘The lab was her existence,’ Norma Christie, a close friend and former colleague, said of Irene Uchida.

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.

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.

"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.