Kiyomi Koizumi

Kiyomi Koizumi

Photo courtesy of SUNY Downstate Medical Center

I was born in Kobe, Japan in 1924 as the youngest of 6 children. Around that time in Japan, girls were educated differently from boys. Having received completely segregated education for girls beginning from my grade school, I entered Tokyo Women’s Medical College, founded by a pioneering woman doctor, Dr. Yayoi Yoshioka, in 1942. Throughout the devastating war and constant bombing in Tokyo, we studied continuously and accepted our fate, meeting death of some of our class-mates (due to bombing), walked miles on the broken rail tracks where street cars no longer ran to reach our class rooms. We were young, and my recollection of those days is nothing but pleasant and fun. We had much excitement learning new subjects and being with friends. By the time we graduated in 1947, Japan was occupied by the US forces and many changes in political and also education systems were carried out. For the first time in the history of Japan, my graduating class had to face a “national examination” followed by one-year-internship. This was the first time we, women medical graduates, worked side-by side with male graduates in hospitals. This experience caused many of my classmates to marry doctors. After the war, conditions in Tokyo were harsh even in hospitals. At Saiseikai hospital where I interned, rain leaked into the hospital buildings; in surgery, we scrubbed our hands under very cold water and our patients lay in unheated surgical rooms, but we lost no patient with pneumonia or other ailments – it was a kind of miracle. The internship taught me much clinical experience, but I was more inclined to go into a basic research career due to my love of physiology that was cultivated at my medical school by our excellent teacher.

With my luck, in 1949 I won a scholarship given by the American church group to continue my graduate study in the USA. My sponsor found me a graduate student position in the Department of Physiological Chemistry at Wayne University Medical College in Detroit. Full of hope and anticipation, but with poor knowledge of spoken English, I boarded the American warship, S.S. General Gordon, at Yokohama in September, 1949, reaching San Francisco after 13 days. This was followed by three more days on a train before I finally reached Detroit. Receiving great help from Prof. A. H. Smith and his departmental faculty members, I attended lectures, and did many laboratory experiments with medical students (50 students in a class with only 2 women) as well as with fellow graduate students. All of them helped me at every step during my student days. For my research, I worked in the surgery department studying the intestinal absorption of amino acids in dogs, receiving a MS in Physiological Chemistry in 1951.

Fortunately, I found my first job as an instructor in the Physiology Department of the present school with much support given by Prof. Chandler McCuskey Brooks. The school located in Brooklyn was then called State University of New York, Medical School in NYC. Our laboratories were small, but under Dr. Brooks’ kind and excellent guidance, each faculty member enjoyed their own research with no worries about money or shortage of any experimental animals, although we also had to spend a great deal of time for our heavy teaching loads including many laboratory exercises for students. Those years were the “golden age” for us experimenters. The environment was perfect for me, and I stayed in the department ever since until today, for 62 long years.

I began my research on spinal cord functions, as a continuation of studies began by Dr. Brooks and an Italian visiting professor, Dr. M. G. F. Fuortes. Because of my ignorance in electrophysiological techniques at that time, I learned everything from Dr. Brooks, even the way to develop films in our dark room. Nearly every electrical apparatus was “hand-made”, but we had one Cossor oscilloscope for recording action potentials. We worked on the mechanism of the “dorsal root reflex” and the effects on spinal reflexes of cold temperature, pharmacological agents, and descending influences of the reticular formation. Because of Dr. Brooks’ insight, the department had the privilege of having a visiting professor yearly from abroad who was an accomplished investigator. I was fortunate to work with several visiting professors, learning new techniques for my research as well as learning much about different countries. I worked with Prof. Laurence Malcolm from New Zealand (1953-4) on spinal reflexes on kittens; learned the intracellular recording techniques working with Prof. Isamu Suda from Japan (1955-6); and with Prof. David Curtis from Australia (1960) the use of 5-barrel micro-electrodes for injecting and recording from midbrain neurons studying effects of transmitters.

Those were my exciting years as a young investigator, but after 10 years on the spinal cord work, I wished to change my field of research to studying the autonomic nervous system and neurosecretory cells in the hypothalamus. This coincided with my forced return to Japan in 1960 because of my visa status. As a visiting fellow at Kobe Medical College in Prof. Isamu Suda’s Physiology Department, I had the good fortune to learn from him ingenious techniques to explore this new research field, and to increase experimental skills under very limited resources in that still war-devastated country. In 1963, I finally could return to my own department in Brooklyn. I continued my research both on the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system for the next 25 years.

In my opinion, my research in these years yielded two main accomplishments. First, in studies of the hypothalamus and the posterior pituitary, we found the direct way of identifying neurons (by antidromic activation), and also could relate their electrical activities directly to effector organ responses, i.e., hormone (oxytocin and vasopressin) output into the blood. Thus we could translate changes in neuron activities in the brain directly to that of body functions, giving physiological significance to our data. Second, through our studies on the autonomic nervous system, we organized researchers in the field worldwide through symposia. This led to the publication of the first English journal in the field through Elsevier Publishing Company, “Journal of the Autonomic Nervous System”, with Dr. Brooks and me as Chief and Co-editors in 1978. The journal continues till today as “Autonomic Neuroscience, Basic and Clinical”.

Around the late 1980’s another change in my research career occurred. I became involved in studying the cause(s) of spontaneously occurring polydipsia in mice because of my interest in vasopressin and supraoptic nuclei, and in structures around the third ventricle involving in water balance. (These mice were found at the NIH during various manipulations to produce cancer; long before genetic engineering techniques became available.) This work also engaged many laboratories in Japan with grants from its government.

I must also mention the excellent help I received from my co-workers, particularly the post-doctoral fellows that came to Brooklyn from abroad during the last 30 years of my research career ---  altogether 13 fellows, from Japan, Hungary, Germany, Argentina and Chile. I owe them all of my research accomplishments including all my published papers. They were not only excellent and skilled scientists and co-workers, but also my life-long friends. When they returned to their native countries they became professors of physiology, but, now most became emeritus professors. All of them still treat me graciously whenever I have an occasion to meet them in their own countries.

When I think about my long and happy research life with joy and gratitude, I marvel at my fortune for having the most wonderful mentors and co-workers through out my career. Also I am very grateful to my second country, the USA – she gave me plenty of opportunities to work and earn sufficient money for decent living, even when I did not have any immigrant status. I am also grateful for the fact that I did not face any discrimination at my work because of my race and gender. During my time as an interim chair of Dept. of Physiology lasting for 8 years, (between at my “old” age of 65 and 73) members of my department as well as my colleagues- other chairmen -  at our school were extremely supportive of me.

Almost at the end of my long career as a physiologist I realize that the most important moments or the most wonderful memories in my life are not what I discovered, or what I published, but the excitement felt at the end of our long hours of experimentation, often into the early twilight or midnight darkness. I still can vividly recall those moments in the laboratories in Brooklyn, and in the far countries where I did my work. At those moments, feeling such thrills and satisfaction, I often felt my gratitude of being a scientist and also indebtedness to my teachers, co-workers and also my adopted country, the USA, the place I received ample opportunities and the kindest help throughout my career.

In the last 10 plus years, I have enjoyed the luxury of being a semi-retired professor at my school where I’ve spent most of my life. In the past several years the climate of doing research has changed so drastically. Seeing young physiologists struggle for continuing research under very difficult conditions with scarce funds and severe competition, I very much worry about the future of research in physiology, but I cannot come up with any clever advice to them but offering my sympathy at this time.