A LIFE STORY OF SARUHASHI Katsuko (1920-2007)

Gender can be a powerful tool in exploring how technical knowledge systems have historically intersected with identity and social order. Gender as an analytical framework offers one way to understand why certain kinds of people have been understood to be unreliable knowers, pathologically embodied, untrustworthy, or dangerously linked to emotion, incompetence or confusion, while other kinds of people have been socially marked as embodying reliability, trustworthiness, or epistemological neutrality.

In the spring of 2016, Professor Susan M. Lindee (History and Sociology of Science Department, University of Pennsylvania) offered a graduate seminar on “Gender and Science.” As a part of this course, I produced a short bibliography of Saruhashi Katsuko, a geochemist at the Japanese Meteorological Research Institute (MRI) who conducted research on the effects of atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s by measuring the amount of radioactivity in seawater. In this paper, I applied feminist theories to analyze illuminate some of the ways that gender has mattered in her career as a scientist.

(Access PDF version from here: 2016spring_hssc528_biography_sumiko-hatakeyama_final)

(Sumiko Hatakeyama)


A LIFE STORY OF SARUHASHI Katsuko (1920-2007)

When Saruhashi Katsuko was a young child, people would mock her about the ironic contrast between the name given to her and her personality. Her given name, Katsuko, literally translates as strong-minded or victorious. However, she was quite the opposite. Born in Tokyo in 1920, she was the long awaited baby girl of Saruhashi Kuniharu and Saruhashi Kuno. Spoiled by her parents and older brother Eiichi, Saruhashi was a shy, weeping, introverted little girl.

When she passed away in 2007 at the age of 87, however, the obituaries (The Mainichi Newspapers 2007; Yomiuri Shimbun 2007) made clear that Saruhashi would be remembered as a woman who lived up to her name. She was a successful geochemist, who worked at the Japanese Transport Ministry’s Meteorological Research Institute (MRI) for 35 years. She was the first woman to be awarded a doctoral degree in Chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1957. She was the first woman to be elected as the member of the Science Council of Japan, the country’s “parliament of science” (1981-1985). She was the first woman to receive the Miyake Prize for geochemistry in 1985.[1]

Saruhashi was also a great promoter of women in science. In 1958, she established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists, but not just as a “system of compensatory recognition” (Rossiter 1982, 297-312). It was a platform to gather, discuss, and find practical solutions to the issues woman scientists faced and struggled with (Saruhashi 1999, 47–48). When she retired from the Meteorological Research Institute (MRI) in 1980, she founded the Association for the Bright Future of Women Scientists and the Saruhashi Prize. The latter, an annual prize for Japanese women scientists who make important contributions to the natural sciences, continues to be one of the most prestigious academic prizes.

Two research projects made Saruhashi particularly well-known as a geochemist. Both were pioneering in nature, and their significance was recognized both within Japan and beyond. The first was her study on carbonic acid substances in natural waters. In 1955, she published a paper, which included a table—later called the “Saruhashi’s Table”—that allowed researchers to determine the composition of three carbonic acid substances based on water temperature, pH level, and chlorinity (Saruhashi 1955, 1296-1307). This table served oceanographers worldwide for over three decades, until it was substituted by computers.[2]

The second research project also started in the 1950s, following the nuclear testing in the Pacific, was her work on the measurement of artificial radioisotopes in seawater.[3] The series of research Saruhashi conducted with Miyake Yasuo, her mentor, demonstrated the usefulness of radionuclides to trace ocean currents. This opened up a new method in oceanography. As a result of this work, in 1962, Saruhashi was invited to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at UC San Diego, to compare the two competing analytical techniques used by Japan and the United States in determining the fallout Cesium in seawater.

Given how often women scientists remained unacknowledged for their work,[4] the wide-scale recognition Saruhashi gained is remarkable. What made her female gender not shape Saruhashi’s experience as a woman scientist? The choice of subjects she studied may have played a role. “[F]ragmentation in the field, and its shifting boundaries with other fields,” often opens up new possibilities for women (Pringle 1998, 77–78). Indeed, both carbon acid substances and radioisotope were topics that not many geochemists were studying. What was more pivotal for Saruhashi’s life, however, was Miyake Yasuo, her mentor at the MRI. When Saruhashi was at the Imperial Women’s College of Science in 1942, it was Miyake, who arranged for Saruhashi to use MRI’s laboratory facilities during off hours. This gave Saruhashi access to science equipment she needed for her graduation thesis. Later, when Saruhashi insisted she did not want to work for the military industry it was again Miyake who offered her a position at the MRI. This had significant longer-term impact for Saruhashi. Most of the jobs on governmental and industrial war projects turned out to be temporary, and many women scientists who had taken up these positions were displaced in the “postwar ‘adjustment’” (Rossiter 1995, 24-27). Finally, at the MRI, Miyake did not tolerate any sort of gender discrimination: he gave male and female scientists equal responsibility, obligations, voice and visibility. Thus, while she was an exceptionally hardworking “iron scientist,” this should not be seen as a mere performance of masculine acts, or “masquerade” (Pringle 1998, 81). She was learning stoic professional ethos by body and “inscribing it through routinization”, but not to learn how to be a scientist but to learn how to do science (Cassell 2000, 103).[5]

I worked hard…I concentrated entirely on learning how to do science. But that was not an effort I made as a woman to compete against men. I knew that by working hard, I could slowly unwrap the secrets of nature…this was such a joy…the sheer joy I enjoyed as a researcher.

(Saruhashi cited in Yonezawa 2009, 65. Translation by the author)

Yet, once outside the laboratory, gender did shape Saruhashi’s experience as a scientist. Discrimination was an everyday affair. Minami Eiichi was a professor at the University of Tokyo, who was initially asked by the Japanese government to analyze what constituted the so-called death ash or Bikini snow—contaminated calcium oxide particles originating from pulverized and calcined corals. Yet neither he nor his team members were able to resolve the scientific enigma. As a result, he decided to ask Saruhashi to do the microanalyses. However, he first asked her to conduct the analysis using the other calcium carbonate sample he had prepared, to “check the accuracy of Saruhashi’s analysis,” even though she was already widely known as ‘the’ expert of microanalyses (Yonezawa 2009, 17). It may simply have been that the death ash was only available in small quantities and Minami therefore wanted to make sure he did not waste the particles. However, it is equally feasible that Minami was skeptical of Saruhashi’s ability as a woman scientist; he was unwilling to accept that she was more capable than him; or he might have felt the need to publicly demonstrate that he had good reasons to rely on a woman scientist. In any case, it is hard to imagine a similar ‘test’ conducted with a male scientist.

A more obvious and perhaps disturbing example of discrimination is Saruhashi’s experience at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in San Diego. She was invited to SIO to engage in the comparison of the two disagreeing techniques of measuring radioactive materials in seawater, one developed by Japan, and the other by the United States. When Saruhashi arrived, Theodore Folsom, the leading researcher of the radioactive fallout study at the SIO, insisted that Saruhashi did not need to commute to the institute every day. Saruhashi was instead asked to work in a wooden hut (Yonezawa 2009, 32), something strikingly reminiscent of how Emil Fischer put Lise Meitner in a small woodworker’s shop, “outside of the ‘off-limits to women’ labs” (Rife 1999, 29). Furthermore, a detailed examination of the article jointly published by Folsom and Saruhashi reveals that the comparison of the techniques was set up in a manner disadvantageous to Saruhashi. The sample passed to Saruhashi to analyze had concentration of Cs-134 that was 20% lower than that was given to Folsom (Folsom and Saruhashi 1963). In general, the lower the concentration, the more difficult the analysis becomes. Like the case of Minami, it is likely that gender—and in this case race too—played roles: whoever was involved in this misconduct may well have thought that Folsom, as a Western male figure representing the victorious nation, could not be shown to be inferior to a small Asiatic woman from a defeated nation. Despite the disadvantage, Saruhashi provided a more accurate measurement of the sample, and Japanese technique was proved to be superior to the American one (Yonezawa 2009, 37).

How gender influences one’s life is unpredictable: cultural values and politics intertwine and affect one’s gender perception differently at different times. Saruhashi’s parents always held strongly that girls should be educated. However, education never meant higher education for them, who had spent most of their life in rural Japan before moving to Tokyo. Consequently, they encouraged Saruhashi to take up the position at an insurance firm, as soon as she completed her secondary education. The upbringing of Saruhashi’s parents thus influenced their gender perception. As for Saruhashi, although she had an aspiration to pursue further education, she initially conformed to their parents and “performed” gender (Butler 1988). She knew that going against one’s parents was seen as a “shame” in Japan. Yet, four years later in 1941, Saruhashi persuaded her parents, quit the job, and knocked the door of the Imperial Women’s College of Science. Intriguingly, part of what made Saruhashi sure of her passion to pursue further education, and what made Saruhashi’s mother eventually supportive of Saruhashi’s pursuit, was their shared experience of the WWII. The WWII left too many women without husband or father. Both Saruhashi and her mother witnessed the miserable life these women had to live, with no means to make living. Through this experience, Saruhashi came to believe that women must have technical knowledge to gain financial independence. Saruhashi’s mother likewise came to think that her daughter should be given an opportunity to learn marketable skills that would lead to a profession. Given how wars and political oppressions also shaped other women scientists’ perception of freedom and independence—e.g., Marie Curie and Lise Meitner—, how political disasters shape women’s perception on career may be worth investigating further. [6]

By way of conclusion, it is important to consider how Saruhashi’s vision and practice of science may help us consider “how the institutions, goals, and research priorities of science might be restructured” by taking into account the experience of women like Saruhashi (Schiebinger 1989, 276). For Saruhashi, the goal of science was, “to discover scientific truths, and to develop and utilize them for the betterment of human welfare” (Saruhashi 1983, 72). She firmly believed that scientists bore social responsibility, and that social values had to inform research goals and priorities. Saruhashi’s science embraced “attention to and care for the living, suffering, and dying of human beings” —what the gendered scientific discourses would preemptively deter (Cohn 1993, 235). Thus, when she was researching the radioactive contamination of the Pacific, she found it imperative that scientists understand the contamination, because it directly affected the health of the Japanese population. She also understood cooperation to be an important aspect of science, and not “duels” (Nye 1997, 69; Shapin 1994, 113), and in this cooperative practice of science, lay people also played roles. She often attended meetings organized by civil society organizations, where she informed the participants, but participants also informed Saruhashi what they perceived to be important scientific agenda. Looking further into Saruhashi’s practice of science—what informed her scientific agenda, what data she used and how, and who she cooperated with—may open up ways to suggest an alternative to the professionalization process that has characterized modern science.

The remarkable life of Saruhashi leaves us with one fundamental question: Was Saruhashi’s life as a whole a performative act of a “successful woman scientist”? She was indeed aware of the fortunate and unusual life she was living as a woman scientist, and that was precisely what motivated her to work hard, both for the advancement of science and for the advancement of women in science. Then, while gender did not shape Saruhashi’s life in the same way as it did other women scientists’, gender was perhaps affecting Saruhashi’s life as a scientist in the most fundamental way.

(Word Count: 2144)

[1] Even to date, no other woman has received this prestigious prize awarded by the Geochemistry Research Association. http://www-cc.gakushuin.ac.jp/~e881147/Geochem/miyakeshou.html

[2] In 1960, at the 11th General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics in Helsinki, a Finish professor introduced Saruhashi’s research to the members. Moreover, in Chemical Oceanography (1965), John P Riley spends over 20 pages explaining Saruhashi’s research and its contribution to the field. (Yonezawa 2009, 73)

[3] In particular, the Bikini test in March 1954 propelled world governments to determine how radioactive materials travelled through the atmosphere and the ocean. Responding to the request by the Japanese government, Saruhashi and Miyake Yasuo, her mentor, measured the concentration of Cs-137 and Sr-90 in the western North Pacific  (Miyake et al. 1961).

[4] For early examples, works that traced the life of woman scientists in early modern Europe demonstrate how making of modern science excluded women and how consequently women remained unacknowledged. See, (L. Schiebinger 1987; L. L. Schiebinger 1989) For more recent trends especially in the United States, and in relation to professionalization of scientists, see (Rossiter 1982; Murray 2000) The most illuminating example on credit and recognition is the case of Lise Meitner. See (Rife 1999; Sime 1996) Japan could not have been an exception. This point is well highlighted in the edited volume by Saruhashi and Shiota, which traces the history of Japanese woman scientists in the 20th century (Saruhashi and Syōbē 1985).

[5] Murray also talks about some similar cases among post-war American mathematicians. See, (Murray 2000)

[6] Marie Curie, who had the experience of suffering from Russian tyranny, is known to have cherished freedom and independence as a person, and to have insisted on not depending on others. Likewise, Lise Meitner, after her experience in Nazi Germany, firmly believed in freedom and independence, and never went back to Germany despite repeated requests from her former colleagues.


Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (4): 519–31. doi:10.2307/3207893.

Cassell, Joan. 2000. The Woman in the Surgeon’s Body. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Cohn, Carol. 1993. “War, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War.” In Gendering War Talk, edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, 227–46. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Folsom, T. R., and Katsuko Saruhashi. 1963. “A Comparison of Analytical Techniques Used for Determination of Fallout Cesium in Sea Water for Oceanographic Purpose.” Journal of Radiation Research 4 (1): 39–53. doi:10.1269/jrr.4.39.

Miyake, Yasuo, Katsuko Saruhashi, Yukio Katsuragi, and Teruko Kanazawa. 1961. “Cesium 137 and Strontium 90 in Sea Water.” Journal of Radiation Research 2 (1): 25–28. doi:10.1269/jrr.2.25.

Murray, Margaret Anne Marie. 2000. Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post-World War II America. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Nye, Robert A. 1997. “Medicine and Science as Masculine ‘Fields of Honor.’” Osiris 12: 60–79.

Pringle, Rosemary. 1998. Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power, and Authority in the Medical Profession. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rife, Patricia. 1999. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Boston: Birkhäuser.

Rossiter, Margaret W. 1982. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

———. 1995. Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Saruhashi, Katsuko. 1955. “A Study on the Metabolism in Natural Waters. II. On the Equilibium Concentration Ratio of Carbonic Acid Substances Dissolved in Natural Waters.” Nippon Kagaku Zassi 76 (11): 1294–1308. doi:10.1246/nikkashi1948.76.1294.

———. 1983. Manabu Koto Ikiru Koto: Josei to Shite Kangaeru [I Think as a Woman: To Live To Learn]. Shohan. Tōkyō: Fukutake Shoten.

———. 1999. Saruhashi Katsuko: Josei to Shite Kagakusha to Shite [Saruhashi Katsuko: As a Woman, As a Scientist]. Ningen No Kiroku 97. Tōkyō: Nihon Tosho Sentā.

Saruhashi, Katsuko, and Shiota Syōbē, eds. 1985. 女性研究者あゆみと展望 [Woman Scientists: Past and Prospects]. Tokyo: Domesu Syuppan.

Schiebinger, Londa. 1987. “Maria Winkelmann at the Berlin Academy: A Turning Point for Women in Science.” Isis 78 (2): 174–200.

Schiebinger, Londa L. 1989. The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Shapin, Steven. 1994. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Sime, Ruth Lewin. 1996. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. California Studies in the History of Science, v. 13. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Mainichi Newspapers. 2007. “悼:地球化学者・猿橋勝子さん=9月29日死去・87歳 [Obtuary: Geochemist Saruhashi Katsuko, deceased on 29 September, 87 years old],” November 7, sec. General.

Yomiuri Shimbun. 2007. “[追悼抄]9月 「女性科学者に明るい未来をの会」専務理事・猿橋勝子さん [Orbituary, September, Executive Director of the Association for the Bright Future of Women Scientists, Saruhashi Katsuko],” November 6, sec. Obituary.

Yonezawa, Fumiko. 2009. 猿橋勝子という生き方 [The Way of Life of Saruhashi Katsuko]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.


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