By Terry Watada
Now where was I? Oh yes, I was about to reveal some surprising facts: surprising to me that is. First off, let me apologize to a long-ago friend of mine. I had promised to include the following subject back in 2014. It’s only now I have submitted it because either other issues came to the forefront or I was just lazy. In any case, this month’s surprising fact is Frank Shimada’s life.
I knew him to see him. He was always at Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the early days. But I didn’t know him. I got to know his eldest son Doug during the 1970s. He was a witty guy with always a funny line and a huge smile. He made friendship with him an easy thing.
But his father was a typical Nisei: quiet, hard-working and reserved. With his death in 2014, stories in newspapers about him appeared and surprised me. He was a much respected polio vaccine researcher.
Polio, a paralysing virus, was one of the most frightening public health problems in the 1950s. I remember hearing of several students in my elementary school contracting it and reducing them to the wheelchair or crutches and braces. I and my fellow classmates were sorely afraid of the disease even though none of us understood it.
Fortunately, Jonas Salk developed and introduced a vaccine in 1955. In 1952, the year with the worst outbreak of the disease, 58,000 cases of polio were reported in the US. 3145 patients died and 21,269 were paralysed (mostly children). Randy Kerr, a six-year-old in McLean, Virginia, was the first to receive an injection of the experimental vaccine in a massive trial. Frank Shimada was one of the team of researchers that found a way to mass produce the vaccine for Canada.
Shimada was the youngest (28 years old) member of the team at the University of Toronto’s Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. They figured out a way to mass produce the vaccine and then rushed to make enough for the Canadian trial. The research and manufacture led the way to the eradication of the disease from most of the world.
Frank Shimada, the youngest of three children, was born in Vancouver in 1926. His parents came from Japan in 1908 and owned the cafe Sumiyoshi Place. His brother Ken played second base for the Asahi Baseball team in 1932 and ‘33. And during WWII, the family went into the self-supporting camp at Christina Lake.
Frank, despite the setbacks, persevered by taking a correspondence course to complete his high school diploma requirements. After the war, he resettled in Hamilton to work towards a science degree at McMaster University. His first post-university job in 1948 was as a monkey catcher for Connaught. Quickly working up the ranks, he found himself on the research team to mass produce the polio vaccine. He was involved in all aspects of the project. The breakthrough came after two years of experimentation.
The Toronto Star described the “Toronto Method” as follows:
Specially designed machines gently rocked large rectangular bottles containing a synthetic medium and cells from monkey kidney tissue. Following a few days of rocking, the polio virus was added to the bottles to infect the cells, and the rocking continued for a few more days. The final result was a large quantity of live virus that would subsequently be killed and turned into a vaccine.
For the next thirty years, Shimada worked on developing an oral polio vaccine and also a measles vaccine. He rose to become head of Connaught’s safety department. During visits to the facility, Dr. Jonas Salk always asked after or talked to Shimada. It was a quiet recognition of Shimada’s contribution.
Despite his monumental accomplishment, Frank Shimada was a typical Nisei. Medical historian Christopher Rutty declared Shimada had “instinctive smarts”. Yet Shimada humbly declared that he “was there at the right time, under the right conditions”. He was a modest man who did not broadcast his accomplishments, preferring to say instead, “When you’re in medicine, what greater accolade can you get than knowing you helped save thousands of kids from becoming paralyzed?”
For me, Frank Shimada is part of the coterie who went about their business to contribute to society despite society’s rejecting of them in the name of racial integrity. He joins the ranks of Thomas Shoyama, Dr. Irene Uchida, Dr. Wesley Fujiwara, Dr. Midge Ayukawa and others that meant so much to Canada and the world yet remain relatively unknown. Now that really is Nisei.