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Ruby Hirose painted by Trudi Murray

Have You Heard Of… Ruby Hirose

by Trudi Murray

Ruby Hirose

I’m Trudi Murray and my new illustration project, Have You Heard Of..? searches out and tells the stories of inspiring and interesting people we might not ever have heard of. For example, have you ever heard of a female scientist who helped develop the polio vaccine? No? Well, let me introduce you to… Dr Ruby Hirose.

Ruby Hirose painted by Trudi Murray

Have you Heard Of… Ruby Hirose, polio vaccine researcher

Ruby Hirose was a second generation Japanese American, born in Washington State in the USA in 1904. The Japanese word for Ruby’s generation is “Nisei”. This is interesting to know, for reasons that will become clear as we learn more about Ruby.

Ruby’s parents were farmers who came from Japan to start a new life in America. It was a precarious living: along with the struggles that come with being an immigrant, Ruby’s dad worried about the cost of his children’s education. Ruby and her siblings were among the first of the Nisei generation at their school. Ruby went on to study in Washington, gaining a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1926, and a Master’s degree in pharmacology in 1928. After moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, Ruby earned her PhD in 1932, and started work at the university there as a researcher.

A new job in 1938 at a chemical company, saw Ruby researching serums and antitoxins, and working on the advancement of vaccines. It was this research that greatly contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, a chemical advance that has helped millions of people worldwide.

However, it’s due to a mere quirk of geography that Ruby was able to carry on with her vital research. Having moved away from Washington, Ruby Hirose escaped the forced relocation of the Japanese American community living on the West Coast that took place during the Second World War. What happened? Well, fear and suspicion of those of Japanese ancestry led authorities at the time to believe that those communities posed a threat to national wartime security. There was no charge to support this, nor did those relocated have any way to appeal against it.

Instead, in 1942, Ruby’s community, many of whom were American citizens (the Nisei) were roundly rehomed in basic, remote, internment camps – Ruby’s family back home in Washington among them. Only towards the end of the war were the internment camps disbanded, and the Japanese American communities allowed to return to their homes. On their release from the camps, many Japanese Americans had lost everything they once knew, or possessed. Years later, in the 1980s, this internment was officially recognised by the US as gravely unjust.

Ruby Hirose’s work in science was highly respected. It is sobering to think how near she came to not being able to fully complete her career at all. 

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