RUArt number 7

by Christina Pyrgaki

A few weeks ago I mentioned to my friend Miho that I had to decide which art piece would be the subject of this month’s “RUArt.” “Oh! You should write about Noguchi,” Miho said. Since I had no idea who she was talking about, Miho went on to explain that Noguchi was a Japanese bacteriologist who worked at The Rockefeller Institute in the beginning of the twentieth century, and he is to this day revered in Japan and other countries around the world. His bust is the last in a row on the right wall closest to the elevators in the lobby of the Rockefeller Research Building (RRB). Paying a visit to it is a sort of pilgrimage for many Japanese. “You will have no trouble finding stories about him,” said Miho with a smirk that I initially misinterpreted as a modest expression of national pride.

Photograph by the author.

It was a funny coincidence that, just a day after my chat with Miho, I found myself surrounded by a group of Japanese high school students marveling at Noguchi’s bust as I exited the elevator into the RRB lobby. I could not help but wonder what attracted these visitors here for a quick viewing of this bust, especially since I had just learned that there is a copy of it in the Noguchi Museum in Japan. Was it Dr. Noguchi’s scientific accomplishments, his honorable personality, or was it the artistic merit of the statue? Maybe all three?

The bust was created in 1928 by Sergey Konenkov, a Russian-born sculptor who lived and worked in NYC from 1922 until 1945, when he and his wife returned to the Soviet Union. While in NYC, Konenkov’s close friendship with Dr. P.A. Levine, a world-renowned biochemist and one of the first scientists to join The Rockefeller Institute, secured a number of commissioned portraits for the artist. The sculptor’s commissioned work included, among others, sculpted portraits of Simon Flexner, P.A. Levine, W.H. Welch (his bust stands just a couple of meters away from Noguchi’s,) and Albert Einstein. The portraits he created during his years in the US provided him with an income (he would charge about $2,000 for each,) but they do not necessarily represent his best work from this period. They certainly pale in comparison to statues like “Winged Figure” (1924), “Old Man with an Instrument” (1925), “The Prophet” (1928), and “Magnolia” (1930). These were the statues as well as others from the same period built Konenkov’s reputation as the Russian Rodin and some of them would be worth a trip around the globe to see, much more so than Noguchi’s bust.

As with most of Konenkov’s commissioned portraits, this bust is a fine portrait, but no more than that. The artist has done a great job capturing not only the likeness of Noguchi, but also his infamous contemptuous look. Noguchi was not only known for his arrogance and overconfidence, but also for a long list of personality flaws. He was a heavy drinker, a womanizer, and he lived most of his life, starting from his early teenage years, on loans that he rarely paid back. His first trip to the US was sponsored by a wealthy family with money that meant to be an early dowry for their daughter. Not only did he never marry her, but it also took him more than 20 years to repay this debt. Noguchi had an amazing ability to get what he needed from others, and he not only used, but on occasion abused the kindness that others showed him. In light of this information, I started to realize that Miho’s smirk was not an expression of national pride after all.

When it came to science, he worked hard, often late in the night and mostly alone; he did not trust anyone enough to perform even trivial lab tasks. He was a productive scientist, but very few of his discoveries have been reproduced or have stood the test of time. His only still standing accomplishment, the discovery of the causative agent of syphilis, was the one that led to three Nobel Prize nominations within a few years. This achievement, however, is associated with some ethically questionable practices. While he was trying to create a skin test for syphilis, he infected a number of healthy subjects. Although it is not entirely fair to judge morals in scientific practice during Noguchi’s era using today’s standards, the syphilis skin test development is a testament that, for Noguchi, results were the end that would justify the means. It is not, however, very clear that the result Noguchi was looking for was scientific truth, rather than personal promotion. When Rivers, another scientist at The Rockefeller Institute, told Noguchi that he was considering retracting one of his papers because of erroneous results, Noguchi advised him against it, arguing that it would be years before anyone found out about the mistakes. “I do not think he was an honest scientist,” Rivers later wrote later about Noguchi. Noguchi’s final scientific claim was the discovery of the causative agent of yellow fever, or rather of the causative agent for leptospirosis, which he mistook for that of yellow fever. Armed with trust in the vaccine he created (ineffective against yellow fever as it turned out) and faith in his theory, he set out to Africa to prove that he was right, but he was not. He died in Africa of yellow fever in 1928 and with his dying breath he whispered, “I do not understand.” He was just 51 years old.

It’s not unusual for every professional community, especially the scientific community, to forgive nearly every flaw of its prominent members. The level of tolerance of someone’s otherwise insufferable personality is directly proportional to his accomplishments. Noguchi was relatively well-liked while he was alive, but as his discoveries were discredited over the years after his death, his reputation among his peers withered. Noguchi was relegated to a footnote rather than a chapter in The Rockefeller University’s history. For the lay audience, however, Noguchi’s legacy was not hurt. People still admire him for all he achieved despite his humble beginnings and physical inadequacies. Noguchi was born in a poor farmer’s family in Inawashiro, a remote village in Japan, in 1876. Due to an accident, Seisaku, as it was Noguchi’s birth name, lost use of his left hand when he was eighteen months old. With his mother’s encouragement and support Noguchi set his lofty goal: he wanted to become the world’s most famous doctor. Poverty, his humble origins, and his handicap caused his schoolmates to ridicule him (his nickname was Tenbo, which loosely translates as “hand like a stick”) and his early colleagues to doubt his potential when he was studying to become a doctor. Undeniably the rejection he experienced fostered the development of his belligerent, ruthless personality and his self-centered demeanor. Noguchi learned very early that if you do not swim you sink and that is what he did: he kept on swimming albeit not in perfect style. As a teenager, he carved on a pillar in his family home the phrase: “I will not set foot to this place again, until I have achieved all my goals.” He changed his name from Seisaku to Hideyo (“brightest of the world”) and set out to prove himself worthy of this new name. Along with his inspiring determination to succeed against all odds, his death in Africa also contributed to his lasting legacy. The fact that Noguchi died in the field, working non-stop to cure the disease that killed thousands of people every year, elevated him to martyrdom. It is therefore neither the artistic merit of the bust nor Noguchi’s personality or scientific deeds that keep his memory alive, but rather what he represents: success in spite of adversity, and accomplishment due to hard work, rather than luck.

Even though exemplifying as inspirational the life of someone who claimed success while showing complete disregard for the rules is dangerous, it is difficult not to admire Noguchi’s hard work and dedication to his goals despite all the obstacles he faced. This realization, however, begs the question: How much of a person’s behavior should we forgive when we know that it has its root in trauma and suffering? Should the story of someone who achieved his goals through less than honorable means be considered inspirational? Was Noguchi a self-centered, overly ambitious professional or was he a passionate scientist who was willing to bet his life on his theories? As I look at the picture of Dr. Noguchi from his days as a young aspiring doctor in Japan, I can only hope I am leaving you as confused as I am, and that maybe next time you pass by his bronze bust, you might, if not forgive, at least excuse Noguchi’s arrogant gaze!

Atsushi Kita, Dr. Noguchi’s journey: A life of medical search and discovery, (Tokyo Kodansha International, 2005)

John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, (Penguin books, 2005)

The unconventional vision or Sergei Konenkov. 1874-1971 A Russian sculptor and his times, edited by Marie Turbow Lampard, John E. Bowlt, and Wendy Salmond (Rutgers University Press, 2001)

Zach Veilleux, “Welch Hall, the tourist mecca”, Benchmarks the community newsletter of the Rockefeller university, (June 7, 2004)

Sachi Sri Kanta, “Hideyo Noguchi’s research on yellow fever (1918-1928) in the pre-electron microscopic era,” Kitsasato Arch. of Exp. Med. Vol.62, No.1 1-9,1989

September 2012