Spotlight on Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi
Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi was a Japanese geochemist who studied both the effects of carbon dioxide on seawater and the dangers of radioactive debris from nuclear testing. Her measurements of carbon dioxide levels in seawater were some of the first ever made. She was also one of the first researchers to show that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb testing will spread far outside of the orginal test site. She was committed to supporting and promoting women in science.
Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi was born on March 22, 1920 in Tokyo, Japan. She attended Toho University (then known as the Imperial Women’s College of Science) and graduated from there in 1943. She began working at the Meteorological Research Institute (part of the Japan Meteorological Agency) following the end of WWII. Her friend and mentor, Yasuo Miyake, who had gotten her the job at the Institute, suggested she look into measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide gas in seawater. At the time, no one was looking into carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (partially due to the very low investment in 1950 in the idea of global warming). Saruhashi had to make much of her own equipment. She took painstaking measurements of how carbon dioxide varied by location and depth. For her work, she became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1957. One year later, she established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists to promote women in science. It’s clear that even early in her career, she was a pioneer and supporter of furthering and helping other women in science.
In 1954, the United States conducted nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll (an atoll in the Marshall Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean between Asia and the America’s). A crew of Japanese fishermen downwind of the test site fell ill, and one of them died, prompting Saruhashi and others at the Institute to set up monitoring stations to measure the amount of radioactivity in seawater and rainwater by Japan. She and her team were the first group in the world to look into the effects of bombs tested by the United States and the Soviet Union on the world’s atmosphere. Saruhshi discovered that radioactivity from the test reached the coast of Japan a year and a half after the test. She continued her research on radiation and showed that by 1969, radiation from the tests had spread to the whole of the pacific, making her research some of the first on the issues of nuclear testing. Her evidence was used by protesters in the United States and Soviet Union to stop those governments from performing above ground nuclear tests.
Later in her career, she showed that the Pacific Ocean releases about twice as much carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as it absorbs, meaning it couldn’t help combat the effects of global warming.
She received numerous awards and honors throughout her career. She became the first woman to be elected to Science Council of Japan in 1980, became executive director the Geochemistry Research Association in 1990, and became the first woman to win the Miyake prize (established by her mentor and friend Yasou Miyake) for geochemistry in 1985. She also received many awards for her work promoting and mentoring Japanese women in science. As I mentioned earlier, she founded the Society of Japanese Women Scientists. She won the Avon Special Prize for Women in 1981 for her work on peaceful uses of nuclear power as well as her advocacy for women scientists. She established her own prize in 1981 as well, called the Saruhashi prize, which is an annual prize given to female scientists who act as mentors and role models for younger female scientists. Saruhashi was truly a great advocate for women scientists, stating about her work “I wanted to highlight the capabilities of women scientists. Until now, those capabilities have been secret, under the surface” (Science, 424).
Despite her pioneering work, Saruhashi is almost never cited in western debates on climate change or the dangers of radiation testing, a fact that I believe is due to racism. Saruhashi died on September 29, 2007, at the age of 87. No English biography is published about Saruhashi, but if you wish to learn more about her and how she crusaded for women scientists, check out the Science link below for a great article.
Sources: Science, A-Z Encyclopedia of Women Scientists