Since 1984, the portrait of Keio founder Yukichi Fukuzawa has adorned the Japanese ten-thousand-yen banknote, the country's largest denomination bill. But after more than three decades, Fukuzawa's picture is now set to be retired in 2024. As Fukuzawa bows out, the one-thousand-yen bill will find a new face in Shibasaburo Kitasato, the father of modern medicine in Japan. A close friend of Fukuzawa, Kitasato was nominated for the inaugural Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and served as the first dean of the Keio University School of Medicine.
Shibasaburo Kitasato was born in 1853 in the small hamlet of Kitasato in Oguni village, located in the Aso area of Higo Province (present-day Kumamoto Prefecture). His parents invested in Kitasato's schooling as a child, though Kitasato was always more interested in martial arts than he was his schoolwork. His passion lay in the military, and he dreamed of one day becoming a soldier.
In 1871, at the behest of his father, Kitasato went to study at the Kojo Medical School in Kumamoto (later renamed Kumamoto Medical School and now the School of Medicine, Kumamoto University), but his dream of joining the military remained unchanged.
A turning point came when he met C. G. van Mansvelt, a Dutch physician at the medical school. Mansvelt took a liking to the young Kitasato, who was able to speak a good amount of Dutch, and tried to instill in him an appreciation of medicine. But it wasn't until Kitasato first saw tissue enlarged under a microscope that he became enamored with the field. It was a watershed moment in Kitasato's life in which he finally understood the significance of pursuing a career in medicine.
Mansvelt, realizing Kitasato's potential, impressed upon him the importance of going to Tokyo and then on to Europe to study, and in 1874, Kitasato left his hometown in Kumamoto bound for the capital.
Kitasato went on to the Tokyo Medical School (now the Faculty of Medicine, The University of Tokyo), where he spent his days studying amid the rough and tumble, nativist bankara chauvinism that was the order of the day. At a loss for how to handle these rowdy students, schoolmaster Sensai Nagayo called upon a dear friend and classmate from his days at Koan Ogata's Tekijuku school in the 1850s, who sent two housemasters to watch over the school's dormitories. That friend just so happened to be Keio founder Yukichi Fukuzawa, though it would be many more years before he and Kitasato would meet.
After graduating from Tokyo Medical School in 1883, Kitasato procured a job at the Japanese Home Ministry's Health Department. Just two years later, in 1885, he received orders to travel to Germany, where he would work under physician Robert Koch, one of the founders of modern bacteriology. It was there that Kitasato succeeded in obtaining the world's first pure culture of the tetanus bacteria (bacilli) in 1889. He also demonstrated immunity could be achieved with a serum containing an antitoxin, inventing what is now known as "serum therapy," which earned him immediate international recognition.
In the early 1890s, the Home Ministry was pressing ahead with plans to build a national institute of infectious diseases in order to combat tuberculosis and other common illnesses of the day. The ministry anxiously awaited the return of the now-famous Kitasato, who had gone to Germany in 1885 and would not arrive back in Japan until 1892 at the age of thirty-nine. Soon after his return, however, a meeting of the Imperial Assembly made it clear that approval for the construction of such an institution would take at least two years.
Kitasato's former schoolmaster Sensai Nagayo, now a ministry official, once again consulted Fukuzawa—this time not about rowdy students, but about the construction of this much-needed institute. Fukuzawa pledged his support for a private institute, and that same year, the Institute for Study of Infectious Diseases was born. Thus began Kitasato's friendship with the fifty-seven-year-old Fukuzawa, who would become his lifelong mentor.
In a eulogy written for Fukuzawa after his death in 1901, Kitasato lamented, "...Oh, how sad it is! To mourn the loss of a mentor and father figure from the bottom of one’s heart. ...Though not equal in ability or talent, I will carry on his good work, embody his teachings, and strive to repay my debt to him, one which can never be fully repaid."
After Fukuzawa's death, Keio University approached Kitasato to help establish a new medical department in commemoration of its 60th anniversary. At the opening ceremony of the Department of Medicine (later the School of Medicine) in 1917, Kitasato again paid homage to his mentor as the newly appointed dean, proclaiming: "Though I was never a pupil of Fukuzawa, he taught me more than I ever could have hoped to learn under his tutelage."
Kitasato served as Dean of the Keio University School of Medicine until 1928 and continued in an advisory capacity for the remainder of his life, long after his appointment had ended. In honor of his achievements, the Kitasato Memorial Medical Library was built in 1937. To this day, a bust of Kitasato sits at the entrance of the Kitasato Memorial Medical Library and continues to keep a watchful eye over the next generation of medical professionals at Keio University's School of Medicine.
*This article appeared in Stained Glass in the 2020 winter edition (No. 305) of Juku.