by Joseph Luna
A version of this article previously appeared on the blog The Incubator.
There’s much to see in the newly opened Welch Hall library. For some, it will be a wholly new introduction to such an important campus landmark, fully renovated for twenty-first century science. For others, heading into the new space will be like visiting an old friend, as the hall retains much of its original character. And yet for others, it’s a fitting place to honor a national hero. Since 2004, the portrait of founding RU scientist Hideyo Noguchi has graced the Japanese 1000 yen note, and since then, visiting the place where he worked has been on the itineraries of many Japanese tourists. Having now returned to Welch Hall from the RRB lobby, the bronze bust of Noguchi will no doubt continue to inspire in a more attractive setting. And if you know Noguchi’s story, you might just head over for a photo as well.
Picture yourself at the entrance of a prestigious laboratory in Philadelphia, where you hope to be a postdoc. You just arrived from a small village in Japan and you never went to medical school; you instead learned from textbooks (in self-taught English, French, and German) enough to pass the Japanese M.D. examination with pure hard work. On top of that, you’re without the use of your left hand due to a childhood fire accident. Perhaps you have a letter of introduction in your attaché case, but by all measures you’ve shown up out of the blue, and are hoping—no, praying—for a job. As you stand at the threshold, you become suddenly aware that you’re thousands of miles from home. Do you enter the building?
In 1900, a man named Hideyo Noguchi (born November 24, 1876) must have mulled this over before entering the pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. He could never know it, but he had just embarked on one of the most exciting and tragic scientific adventures of the last century.
Noguchi secured a job as a research assistant under a pathologist named Simon Flexner (recognize him?), who in 1901 became the first scientific director of the newly created Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Under Flexner’s guidance, Noguchi blossomed as a scientist, first studying the toxic properties of snake venoms, then devising a diagnostic test for syphilis infections. In 1910, Noguchi tackled the difficult problem of growing the causative agent of syphilis: the spirochete Treponema pallidum (now known as Spirochaeta pallida). And he wasn’t the first to try.
Years earlier, in 1905, two German scientists, Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann, reported that the squiggly spirochete could be observed in the brains of patients who died of syphilis. While tantalizing as the potential cause, they failed to cultivate the spirochete and as a result could not definitely prove that Treponema caused the disease. The bacteriology world went into an immediate frenzy, with every lab trying to cultivate Treponema pallidum. By 1910, no one had yet succeeded and it remained an open race.
Noguchi set to work. At the time, Treponema could not be cultivated due to fast-growing contaminating bacteria. Only rabbit testicles would support supple growth of the spirochete, yet still contaminating bacteria were a problem. Noguchi realized that if cultures were placed in a semi-porous ceramic filter, the spirochetes would be able to wiggle their way through the filter while leaving contaminating bacteria behind, thus creating a pure culture. He inoculated dozens of rabbits (poor guys), isolated their rabbithood, filtered their extracts and by using the resulting supernatant to inoculate a second set of rabbits—voilà!—the rabbits developed syphilis! Koch’s postulates were confirmed!
With this discovery, Noguchi joined the ranks of Pasteur, Reed, and Smith as a microbe hunter. He triumphantly lectured all across Europe and continued to pursue other diseases that could be caused by spirochetes. The Nobel nominations poured in (he received a total of twenty-five over nine years).
In 1918, the now famous Noguchi was invited to Ecuador to find the unknown mosquito-borne agent that caused yellow fever. Almost immediately he came across the spirochete Leptospira icteroides in patient samples. He went on to show, using his previous methods, that this germ could cause yellow fever-like disease in guinea pigs. (The Ecuadorean government made him an honorary colonel for this discovery.) Traveling in the 1920s to study yellow fever epidemics in Peru and Mexico, Noguchi kept finding Leptospira icteroides popping up—the matter seemed almost closed. Another disease, solved by Noguchi!
One slight problem: in African cases of yellow fever, Leptospira icteroides could not be found. Over time, Noguchi’s initial claim was called into doubt, and despite failing health, Noguchi set out for Africa to find out for himself. Sadly he wouldn’t live to find the answer; in 1928 Noguchi succumbed to yellow fever in Accra, Ghana at age 51.
There are few examples of scientists giving their lives in pursuit of their work; Noguchi’s story is certainly moving. From the humblest of beginnings, to great heights, to a tragic end, the story of Hideyo Noguchi continues to be remembered. In 2006, the Japanese government established the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize, to honor the work of scientists still fighting infectious diseases in Africa.
So have you entered the building yet?
George Washington Corner’s seminal book A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953: Origins and Growth provides a thorough account of Noguchi’s scientific life (The Rockefeller Institute Press, New York, 1964). Available at the RU library.
Noguchi’s recent biography Dr. Noguchi’s Journey: A life of Medical Search and Discovery by Atsushi Kita, is an excellent read and gives an honest picture of the man in all his triumphs and faults. From the preface: “When a person shines so brightly, surely his shadows will be equally as dark.” (Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2005).
Nature obituary, June 1928.
Most of Noguchi’s papers were in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, and are fully accessible via PubMed.