Dr. Kitasato
and the Founding of Terumo

What Kind of Man Was the "Father of Modern Medicine" in Japan?

Development of the serum treatment for tetanus and diphtheria

Dr. Shibasaburo Kitasato

Dr. Shibasaburo Kitasato is known as the pioneer of modern medicine in Japan, but he is also known as a highly regarded physician and researcher around the world. His work on tetanus and diphtheria is best known globally.

In 1886, he began his research at the University of Berlin under Dr. Robert Koch, world-renowned as the man who isolated the tuberculosis bacillus and the Vibrio cholera. Dr. Kitasato succeeded in growing the tetanus bacillus in pure culture, a feat that managed to astonish his mentor. Tetanus is a serious disease that is transmitted when the tetanus bacillus enters the body through a wound and multiplies. The bacteria produce toxins that can cause convulsions. At the time he was doing his research, there was no effective treatment for the disease because the tetanus bacillus could not yet be grown in pure culture.

Dr. Kitasato found that when animals were given small amounts of tetanus bacillus toxin they gradually developed a resistance and did not develop the disease even when large amounts of the toxin was injected into them. Based on the success of this research, he made an enormous contribution to the prevention of infectious diseases by developing the serum treatment for tetanus. He later received great praise as a pioneer in the field of immunology when he applied his serum treatment to diphtheria. His research still plays an important role in modern medicine.

Discovery of the plague bacillus and Dr. Kitasato's unique way to prevent the spread of the disease

In 1894, the Japanese government sent Dr. Kitasato to Hong Kong, where there was an outbreak of bubonic plague. There he discovered the infectious agent of the disease. He also worked on methods that would be effective in preventing the spread of the disease, such as isolating and quarantining infected persons and improving the drinking water and sewerage systems. He also advocated the unique idea that each household should have at least one pet cat, since bubonic plague was spread by rats. He also played a central role in increasing the understanding of public health in Japan.

The first Japanese person to be nominated for a Nobel Prize

Dr. Kitasato collaborated with Emil von Behring, a former pupil of Dr. Koch, to create a serum treatment for diphtheria, which had reached epidemic proportions in Europe at the time. This development was a major innovation in the field of medicine and, though Dr. Kitasato was nominated for the first Nobel Prize, as a result only von Behring won.

The road from aspiring military man to medicine

What sort of background did this great man have?

Shibasaburo Kitasato was born in 1853 in the village of Kitasato, in present-day Kumamoto Prefecture. He was a mischievous boy who wanted to learn the martial arts of sword and spear fighting. Because he was from a samurai lineage, he dreamed of someday becoming a military man. His parents, however, urged him to attend the Kumamoto School of Medicine. It was there that he first looked through a microscope at a piece of magnified tissue. The experience made a deep impression on him and convinced him of the value of studying medicine.

Shibasaburo studies bacteriology in order to develop the fields of public health and preventative medicine

Shibasaburo decided to go to Tokyo to study medicine and formally started his coursework in 1874 when he entered the Tokyo School of Medicine (the present-day Faculty of Medicine, University of Tokyo). While there, he studied not only medicine but also became interested in the state of medical care in Japan at the time. He came to believe that medicine needed to do more than come to the aid of people suffering from disease, which he acknowledged was an important role - he thought medicine was charged with another mission: the prevention of disease. This idea led him to the decision not to become the director of a regional hospital or the dean of a medical school, but rather to work at the Bureau of Hygiene in the Ministry of the Interior (the forerunner of the present-day Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) even if it meant accepting a lower salary. Shibasaburo deepened his interest in public health and preventative medicine at the Ministry and hoped to go to Germany to study bacteriology.

High ambitions and devotion to his research

While studying in Germany, Shibasaburo devoted himself to his research. There is even a story that says he was so absorbed in his studies that he was completely unaware of the world beyond his dormitory, his classroom, and the road between the two.

Shibasaburo described why he was so engrossed in his work. "So little time has passed since Japan has opened itself to the world," he said. "And still there isn't a single field in which we can call ourselves the equals of the Europeans or Americans. We haven't a single world-class scholar. So I will become that scholar."

A man of conviction, he maintained his beliefs and never compromised

After returning to Japan, Shibasaburo continued his work and left a legacy that includes his discovery of the plague bacillus and his identification of a dietary deficiency as the cause of beriberi. But, these discoveries did not come easily. His work on beriberi was in direct opposition to the views of influential professors at Tokyo Imperial University, and the government did not even provide him with a single research laboratory after he returned from abroad. Yet, even in the face of such hardships, Shibasaburo did not compromise or waver in his resolve. He was confident about his empirical research results and he maintained faith in his ideas.

The founding of the Keio University School of Medicine and Kitasato University

Shibasaburo then became the first director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases, an independent facility established by Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University. Shibasaburo also used his own funds to set up the Kitasato Research Institute (this was the forerunner of Kitasato University, which today is the Kitasato Institute). He also helped found the School of Medicine at Keio University in a gesture of appreciation to Yukichi Fukuzawa.

While his pupils, including Hideyo Noguchi and Kiyoshi Shiga, both of who were the famous microbiologist, held Shibasaburo in awe and referred to him as "Doctor Thunder," at the same time they are said to have been very close to him, recognizing him as a warmhearted person.

Dr. Kitasato died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Azabu, Tokyo in June 1931. His life spanned the years from the end of the feudal period of Japan in the late 19th century to the beginning of the modern age between the two world wars. He left a legacy of accomplishments and contributions to the development of medicine in Japan.

Inheriting the Vision of Dr. Kitasato, Terumo Strives to Make the World a Better Place through Medicine

Dr. Kitasato played an enormous role in the advancement of medicine and the development of preventative medicine in Japan. Including Dr. Kitasato the founding members of Terumo believed that the manufacture of clinical thermometers was essential to public health and they were convinced that their work would contribute to improved health for all. Terumo has followed Dr. Kitasato's lead and has established as its corporate mission, "Contributing to Society through Healthcare."

Nowadays, combating the major lifestyle diseases - such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure - is a serious concern. Terumo is not only contributing to advanced treatments for these diseases, but also helping with early detection and prevention, making the most of its unique technologies, engaging in research and development, and cooperating with healthcare professionals.


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