McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

World-class scientist was known for her enthusiasm

Published: November 11, 2013
Irene Uchida
Irene Uchida, professor emerita, Department of Pediatrics, McMaster University

As well as her superb scientific mind, McMaster professor emerita Irene Uchida will be remembered for her feistiness, her sense of humour, her love of music and her insistence on proper grammar.

During the 1960s, the genetics researcher made scientific history when she discovered a link between women's exposure to radiation and Down syndrome in their children. Her chromosome research changed medical practice and led to limiting x-rays on women while providing a greater understanding of the causes of Down syndrome.

She died recently at age 96 after a long illness. Arriving at McMaster in 1969, Uchida was a professor for the departments of pediatrics and pathology and director of the cytogenetic laboratory until retirement in 1985.

Uchida's published more than 95 scientific papers during a 50-year career, and she received many distinctions and honors. Those awards included Officer of the Order of Canada, honorary degrees from McMaster and Western universities; Woman of the Century 1867 to 1967 for Manitoba and the Founders Award, Canadian College of Medical Geneticists.

"Irene devoted her whole life in search of one question: the association of radiation exposure and chromosome segregation," said Viola Freeman, a close friend and an associate professor, pathology and molecular medicine.

"She brought her research interest with energy and enthusiasm from Winnipeg to McMaster when she moved to Hamilton in 1969. As people would say, the rest is history."

Her remarkable accomplishments were achieved despite many adversities in her personal life.

Uchida spent most of the Second World War in an internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia where she became a school principal. The United Church supported her for her first degree from the University of Toronto in 1946.

While she was intent on a career in social work, a professor encouraged her to pursue the study of human chromosomes. After earning a PhD in zoology in 1951, she worked in genetics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and Winnipeg Children's Hospital.

Freeman said Uchida's commitment to basic sciences research was "dynamic." She remembers joining her on a field trip for one of her internationally-funded projects, travelling to visit Down syndrome families from Thunder Bay to Sarnia to Niagara. "I remember taking blood samples from patients sitting on a fire truck (thankfully not moving) and at the food court in some shopping mall. She loved every one of those trips."

For her colleagues, Uchida's passion and zest for life, love of family, art, music, Japanese cooking and having fun, is what they remember.

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