This week we travel to modern Japan. Katsuko Saruhashi was a Japanese geochemist and became known for creating the tools to test for Co2 levels in water. This lead to the discovery of radioactive fallout in the waters around Japan after the 1954 Bikini Atoll nuclear tests.
Katsuko was born on March 22, 1920 in Tokyo, Japan. As a child she became interested in the dynamics of rain and water, and it would be an interest that would drive her career. There is not much available from online sources about her childhood, but her career has a lot more out there.
She graduated with a degree in chemistry from the Imperial Women’s College of Science, which would later become Toho University. She started a career in research at the Meteorological Research Institute. It had a geochemical laboratory, which she would become the executive director of eventually.
While she started her research, she also continued her studies. She graduated with a doctorate in 1957 from the University of Tokyo. She made history for the university becoming the first women to graduate with a Doctorate in Chemistry.
Her main study was the carbon dioxide levels in seawater. It was a relatively new area of study, and she was forced to improvise in her methods. She developed methodologies and tools to be used with the study. Eventually she discovered that sea water has 60% more carbon dioxide then the air above it and gives off twice as much as it absorbs. Her paper, published in 1955, would serve as the basis of oceanography study for three decades when it came to carbonic acid measurements, and aided to the developing understanding of climate change and global warming.
She became involved in another ocean related study in the late 1950s, when the Japanese government asked the laboratory to conduct tests on the radioactivity of the water surrounding the Bikini Atoll testing site.
In March of 1954, the United States completed “Operation Castle” which was a series of high-yield nuclear tests to develop aircraft viable nuclear weapons. The sites for this operation were held across several Islands in Marsha Islands, particularly Bikini Atoll where there were 3 test sites. Atolls were islands made from volcanic rock receding leaving a coral reef remains, surrounding a lagoon. They often appear as small circles of land around a center water area. Several of reefs above ground become small islands to make up the atoll.
One test, known as Castle Bravo, detonated twice its predicted yields, and ended up contamination several nearby islands, as well as US Soldiers stationed in the area and a Japanese fishing boat known as the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. One person died as a direct result of the test, but many continued to have health problems. This brought the test to the Japanese government’s attention.
The tests and research the lab did proved that the fall out of radioactive activity did not simply affect the immediate area of the incident. The fall out could travel via the ocean and air. It was the first study of its kind. They continued to watch the waters till into the 1970s, finding that the radioactive particles from Bikini Atoll had reached the other side of the Pacific Ocean. This test and those that followed helped the push for a Test Ban Treaty, limiting the fall out of radioactive bomb testing.
However, her results weren’t always trusted. Several times the fact that she was female, and because she was not an American, her studies were questioned. However she succeeded to prove her scientific discoveries again and again, earning her the respect she was already due.
In 1979, Katusko was named the executive director of the Geochemical Laboratory. She continued to investigate water chemistry, focusing on acid rain and its effects.
Over her years as a scientist, she won many awards. She was able to establish the Society of Japanese Women Scientists (1958) to promote women in the sciences. After her retirement in 1980, she took a gift of 5 million yen and used it to establish an organization looking for the future of women scientists. It was called the Association for the Bright Future of Women Scientists. In 1981, she established an award in her own name known as the Saruhashi Prize, which was given to a female scientist whose studies are in the natural sciences who has been a good role model for younger women scientists. 37 women have received the award since its inception. In the further reading section, I’ve included a link to a page on Wikipedia that lists the recipients. Several have their own pages and it’s a good start to researching women in science in Japan.
Saruhashi Katusko died on September 29, 2007. Her image appeared this year as a Google Doodle on what would have been her 98th birthday. She left behind a legacy of science, and of determination to see that other women could achieve the success that she found.
A quote I have found in various sources seems to show her view:
“There are many women who have the ability to become great scientists. I would like to see the day when women can contribute to science & technology on an equal footing with men.”
Japanese Femist Debates: A Life Story of Sarauhashi Katsuko – Sumiko Hatakeyama
A to Z of Women in Science in Math – Lisa Yount
(writer’s note: I found that there was a lack of variety of sources for this particular feature with the time I had for researching. I, like always, suggest doing some research on your own on the women you find interesting. )