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The Japanese born microbiologist Hideyo Noguchi’s brilliant career had humble origins. He was born in the village of Sanjogata. His father, the village postman, and his mother toiling in the rice fields barely made a living. A childhood accident with a pot of simmering rice burnt his left arm and hand and caused deformity and scarring. When a school inspector named Kobayashi visited the village school, he noticed Noguchi was gifted and arranged for him to attend his high school in a neighbouring town. He also sent him to a Doctor Watanabe in a nearby town, who divided the scars of his mutilated left hand. This gave Noguchi’s stiff fingers some limited movement. Watanabe took on the boy as an assistant and dispenser of medicines and gave him the chance to learn medicine through apprenticeship, as was customary at the time. In Watanabe’s house he learnt English and German and, using Watanabe’s microscope, Noguchi observed a new organism from a patient with relapsing fever that looked like a corkscrew. That corkscrew germ haunted him for years.
Eventually, Noguchi entered medical school in Tokyo and obtained his diploma 1897. Later he entered the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, whose director Kitasato had studied under Robert Koch in Berlin, and had discovered the organisms of tetanus and plague. At the institute, Noguchi met Professor Simon Flexner visiting from Philadelphia and on the strength of the little English he knew, Noguchi’s had the responsibility of showing him round.
In 1899 Noguchi came to Philadelphia, and started work at the University of Pennsylvania, studying venoms. Noguchi was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship and in 1904 studied in Copenhagen under a leading European authority, Thorwold Madsen. It was in Denmark that Noguchi produced an anti-toxin to snakebite. When Flexner was appointed director of the newly formed Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, he asked Noguchi to join his staff. Here he successfully cultured the spirochete Treponema Pallidum, the cause of syphilis and also proposed a modification of the Wassermann reaction. Noguchi found the spirochete in parts of the human nervous system and the human brain, in diseases previously not thought to be connected with syphilis. He was able to show that T Pallidum invaded the nervous system as the disease progresses.
Noguchi later investigated other diseases. He was interested in poliomyelitis, rabies, and trachoma and invented the term leptospira, or delicate spiral organism. This spirochete had been identified by two Japanese bacteriologists and had been shown to cause of infective jaundice in the rice fields of Japan. He studied Oroya fever in South and Central America and showed it was caused by a bacterium, Baron ella bacilliformis. Between 1919 and 1922, Noguchi became certain that yellow fever was caused by a bacterium, but by 1927 this had been disproved. Noguchi went to West Africa to prove to himself that yellow fever was a viral disease. Within six months he had confirmed this, but just before his departure for New York he contracted yellow fever and died shortly afterwards in what is now Ghana. He was philatelically honoured by Ghana in 1997 on the 120th anniversary of his birth and earlier by Japan in 1949 (Stanley Gibbons no. 557, Scott no. 480).
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