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Dr. Irene Ayako Uchida

April 8, 1917 – July 30, 2013

It is with sadness that we inform you that Irene Ayako Uchida passed away in Toronto on Tuesday, July 30 at 96 years of age.  She has been honoured for her pioneering work in Medical Genetics, receiving the Officer of the Order of Canada, and honorary degrees from the University of Western Ontario and McMaster University. She began her career in human genetics in 1955, studying the genetics of twins with Dr. Norma Ford Walker at the Hospital for Sick Children.  She took a detour in 1960 to the laboratory of Dr. Klaus Patau at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to learn cytogenetic techniques, as Dr. John Edwards had just discovered that trisomy 18 caused a recognizable syndrome.  She returned to the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg as the Director of the Department of Medical Genetics and quickly applied cytogenetic methodology to the study of clinical conditions and to a program of research on the effects of X-radiation on chromosomal nondisjunction.

Dr. Uchida is commemorated on the August 3 cover of the American Journal of Human Genetics.


Dr. Uchida’s family has suggested that donations be made to the Alzheimer Society.  There will be a memorial service to celebrate her life at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on September 15 for friends and family. Her online obituary and guest book may be found at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theprovince/obituary.aspx?pid=166199544#sthash.BWPRSfrE.DQV3eMSX.dpbs

Reflections and Memories
Marsha Speevak, CCMG President, invited some of Dr. Uchida’s friends and past colleagues to contribute their memories to this notice. It is hoped that their recollections will give the younger members of the college a chance to get to know who Irene Uchida was, beyond her many accolades and accomplishments.  Food for thought – on how a passion for science, when extended to a passion for life, magnifies the positive effect we can have on those we encounter in our day to day lives.
- Ron Carter
Irene had a huge impact on genetic services in Hamilton. The cytogenetics lab was her service, running the way that she wanted it to run.  When I arrived, she was clearly reluctant to let go (she was 73, and I think there had been multiple retirement parties, starting at age 65), and she still came in every week for months afterward to check up on us all.  Occasionally she would quietly talk about how she grew up and earlier points in her career.  It was obvious that cytogenetics was her absolute passion in life.  She was smart, energetic, opinionated, funny, irreverent at times, and seriously tenacious in her scientific pursuits.  I think we all became a little more bland in Hamilton when she retired.

- Angie Dawson
Dr.  Uchida founded the Cytogenetics Laboratory in Winnipeg in the late 1960s. She was friends with one of our Winnipeg cytogenetic technologists, Norma Christie, and this is how I first met Irene. I met with Irene at several of the CCMG annual meetings that she attended after her retirement. It was my pleasure to be her roommate at the meeting in Victoria. This has to be one of my most memorable weekends as Irene was certainly an entertaining roommate!! Irene had not only a sarcastic sense of humour, but also very cryptic…you had to listen very close sometimes to catch the joke!! She certainly did like her GlenFiddich and we kept room service hopping!! Not only did Irene know everyone in genetics, but she also knew stories about absolutely everyone! And it seems that the more times room service came up to our room, the more stories there were!! We had a lovely afternoon ‘touristing’ in Victoria. A few pubs were also visited (for GlenFiddich, of course) and some locals chatted up!  She told me about growing up and her family being interned during the war. That was rather sobering, but we were soon off to the Grand Pacific Hotel for afternoon tea.

About 16 years ago, Irene made a very generous donation to our Children’s Hospital and, with this donation, equipment for the Cytogenetics lab was purchased and the Irene Uchida Lectureship was established. This lectureship fund allows us every two years to bring in a visiting distinguished geneticist to the Children’s Hospital and University of Manitoba to deliver the Irene Uchida lecture at Pediatric Grand Rounds. The first Irene Uchida lecture was in 1997. The first guest speaker was Dr. David Ledbetter and Dr. Uchida was present at the inaugural lecture. We presented both distinguished geneticists with a plaque and officially named the Cytogenetic Laboratory after Dr. Irene Uchida. Unfortunately, Irene could not attend many of the following lectures. Irene certainly was feisty, clever, witty and an original ‘grandmother’ of genetics. It was an honour and privilege to know her. I am very pleased that she will continue to be remembered by future staff and students at the Irene Uchida lectureship.

- Sandra Farrell
I was one of Dr. Uchida’s last trainees. Shortly after I first met her, I attended my first ASHG meeting and was impressed at how fondly she was greeted by all her colleagues, particularly, the cytogeneticists, including Lillian Hsu and Dorothy Warburton.  I first heard her as a public speaker at that meeting, where she kept the audience entertained and educated while she moderated a session.  This brought to mind perhaps her last time as a public speaker.  She was given the CCMG Founder’s award about 15 years ago, at a point where she was beginning to recognize that her memory was not what it should be.  At this meeting, which was held in Whistler, she spoke of her life as a cytogeneticist but the background was her life outside of genetics, particularly the formative and difficult years when, as a Canadian of Japanese heritage, she and her family were confined in an internment camp in the interior of British Columbia.  She gave us a vivid lesson in Canadian history, which brought the audience to their feet in respect when she finished. The one regret is that her discussion was not recorded.  Her spirit is not vanquished by her passing.  

- Viola Freeman
On reflection I must have done something right in my previous life to have the fortune to start my 40+ yr career in Genetics with Dr Uchida. In May of 1970 just days after my undergraduate examinations in McMaster I landed a job....a job in a Chromosome Lab with Dr. Uchida! I must confess at the time I knew nothing about chromosomes and even less on who Dr Irene Uchida might be.  Again as luck was on my side, three months as a ‘newbie’, a patient with ring chromosome 20 landed on my shift. Soon I was on Irene’s ‘right’ side.

Irene devoted her whole life in search for one question: the association of radiation exposure and chromosome segregation. She brought her research interest with energy and enthusiasm from Winnipeg to McMaster when she moved to Hamilton in 1969. As people would say the rest is history. It was not unusual to find Irene’s Laboratory crowded with students of all levels, CCMG training fellows of different disciplines and visitors from literally all parts of the world, pioneers cytogeneticists such as Dr TC Hsu, Dr JH Tjio, Dr. Charles Ford to name a few. I don’t remember much of their inspirational conversations at those famous dinners but I do remember Irene crowning Dr Tjio’s home-made ice cream topped with rum soaked maraschino cherries as the most memorable desert.

Irene always kept close contact with her patients, sometimes for decades. It would be emblematical for these parents to enclose photographs of their children with their annual greetings cards. Irene would bring those pictures to the Laboratory and challenged us with one word, ‘Diagnosis?’ For some of us who had been there for a while knew some of the probable answers, such as partial trisomy 9 or very low mosaic Down syndrome but for the younger staff or visitors, speculation and discussion would go on for a while. Formal presentation and large class teaching were not exactly Irene’s preferred teaching style. However, I couldn’t miss the uncanny similarity of her ‘inquisitive teaching’ with the McMaster’s problem based learning philosophy.

Irene was ingenious, systemic and skilful in her project design. She searched for experimental evidence both retrospectively and prospectively, utilising human subjects and mouse models, using meiotic and mitotic metaphases, and in vivo and in vitro cell development. Throughout the two decades in the 70s and 80s with Irene there was never much worry about research funding. Her commitment to basic sciences research was dynamic. She was frequently rewarded by term grants from MRC, NIH and other International funding agencies.

Field trips were one of her favourite parts of these Projects, from mapping out our schedules to visiting the Down syndrome families, travelling from Thunder Bay to Sarnia to Niagara. I remember taking blood samples from patients sitting on a fire truck (thankfully not moving), at the food court in some shopping mall. She loved every one of those trips. She laughed the most trying to take my picture running up the hill away from a herd of sheep. Most crazy fun time!!!

We all know Irene was a party lover. Most people who knew Irene knew about her dinner parties at her Burlington apartment. She hated getting her picture taken but every picture we got she had a drink in her hand. She loved her scotch but not any scotch would do. Glenfiddich was her favourite. Cheers Irene!

- Brian Lowry
I first met Irene just after I had started training with Jim Miller in 1964; she was most encouraging re my career path. I remember just how friendly she was to me, a very junior person in the hierarchy. Over the years we met at various meetings but it was our joint review of Medical Genetics in Victoria where I learned much more about her. We spent three days in February 1989 in a second rate hotel which was draughty and cold. Victoria had one of its rare ice storms. Irene was always cheerful about things. She told me a bit about her life and did not seem to be bitter about her experience in the Internment camp in the interior of BC. She was a teacher there and had a useful role. She had no hesitation in stating that among the problems in Victoria were "personality conflicts". I quote her words from the report which we brought in-"these (conflicts) could be resolved with diplomacy, generosity and understanding on the part of everyone concerned". I like to think that our report resulted in the recruitment of both a CCMG qualified medical geneticist and a cytogeneticist. Irene did not hesitate to call it as she saw it and I benefitted from her experience. I treasure those three days with one of Canada's foremost geneticists.

- Hubert Soltan
She was a good friend, mentor and always a lot of fun.

- Darrell Tomkins
I met Dr. Uchida as an M. R. C. Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University from 1975 to 1977.  The Canadian College of Medical Geneticists was just being incorporated but did not include laboratory scientists providing cytogenetic and biochemical genetic services.  With Dr. Ron Worton from the Hospital for Sick Children, she lobbied for the admission of Ph. D. laboratory geneticists into the College, either through grandparenting or a process of examination.  I was one of the first cytogeneticists to be admitted by examination.  Dr. Uchida was a great mentor, teaching by demonstration and example.  Many C.C.M.G. cytogeneticists have learned from her expertise and example.

Dr. Uchida provided me with opportunities for research on twins, development of new technologies and participation in clinical cytogenetic testing and counselling.  She was a challenging and demanding supervisor, but she was also inspiring and supportive.  Many colleagues will remember her editing of draft manuscripts for correct grammar, referring to her Funk and White if there were any disputes.  Receiving a returned manuscript covered in red was an education in itself!  But she also had a ready sense of humour and love of fun!  There was never a dull moment in her laboratory, and her Japanese dinner parties are legendary.  One of her tempura dinners is said to have induced labour for the birth of my son.  She was always interested in the young people in her life, both her trainees and her nieces, absorbing new ideas and trying them out, like wearing jeans on her trip to Australia.

Her colleagues will remember her passion and zest for life, sharing her love of family, art, music, Japanese cooking and having fun with her colleagues. She is an inspiring model of how to live fully and well.

- Don Whelan
Dr. Irene Uchida and I first met in the early 1970's when McMaster Medical School and Hospital were not finished being constructed. Our offices and some minor lab space were all in "Portables" on campus. Irene and I shared adjacent offices and the same wonderful secretary. We were also next to Dr. David Carr (Dept of Anatomy) who was part of the initial "Genetics Faculty".
 Dr Al Zipursky (Chairman) had the wonderful foresight to bring Dr. Uchida to his Academic and Clinical Department of Pediatrics. In later years Dr.Uchidas' Cytogenetic Service became an integral part of the Section of Laboratory Medicine (Dept. of Pathology).

 Personally Irene taught me a variety of important skills over these years. She monitored and improved my administrative skills; she shared with me her perceptions and management of parents and children with disabilities. She shared her thoughts on financial issues both personal and universal. Finally she made me appreciate the caring and respect she had for everyone she came in contact with.

Most remembered was that we shared our families. She visited often with our family in Hamilton and in Montreal. I had the opportunity to meet her sister in Japan on occasion. We had wonderful dinners and times together with our non-university friends in our homes, fancy restaurants and special receptions. My family and friends had the opportunity and privilege to share her enthusiasm for life and all the things she loved. We have and will continue to miss her a lot.

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