Irene Uchida

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Irene Ayako Uchida
Born (1917-04-08)April 8, 1917
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Died July 30, 2013(2013-07-30) (aged 96)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Education University of British Columbia
University Toronto
Occupation Geneticist
  • "Science is a rewarding and challenging career. Young people going into science must keep an open mind to all ideas in an effort to find every possible way to help people." -Irene Uchida

Irene Ayako Uchida, OC (April 8, 1917 – July 30, 2013) was a Canadian scientist and Down syndrome researcher.

Born in Vancouver, she initially studied English literature at the University of British Columbia. As a child and teenager she played violin and piano, and was described as "out-going" and "social". She went to visit her mother and sister who were in Japan at the time, and was able to catch a ship out of Japan prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 1941.

In 1944 she continued her studies at the University of Toronto where she wanted to get a master's degree in social work. Her professors encouraged her to pursue a career in genetics, and as a result she completed PhD in human genetics at the University of Toronto in 1951 and worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. At the Hospital for Sick Children she studied twins and children with Down syndrome. In the 1960s she helped identify the link between x-rays and birth defects in pregnant women.

In 1960 she became the director of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg and became a professor at the University of Manitoba (National Library of Canada and National Archives of Canada, 1997).

In 1993, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for "her research on radiation and human chromosome abnormalities [that] has made a notable contribution to medical science".[1]

Early life[edit]

Irene Uchida, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. She has been described as feisty, fun-loving, and opinionated. Though originally named "Ayako," which means "Splendid" in Japanese, Irene's piano teacher found it too difficult to pronounce and so gave her the name "Irene." Irene was an accomplished musician and played violin and organ in addition to the piano.

During her childhood in Vancouver, Irene experienced the tragic loss of her best friend in a traffic accident. Around this same time, she also lost her sister Sachi who died of Tuberculosis. These losses instilled in Irene the desire to help people, which is something she worked toward for the rest of her life.


Irene's parents owned two bookstores, so it is fitting that after high school she went on to study English literature at the University of British Columbia. Her education was interrupted, however, after she travelled with her mother and sisters to Japan in 1941. She returned on the last ship back to Canada before the attack on Pearl Harbor that year, her mother and sisters remaining in Japan. Because of the war and the fear it created that the Japanese minority in Canada were a security threat, Irene and her family members who were still in Canada were forced to leave their home and live in an internment camp at Christina Lake, British Columbia.

While in this internment camp, Irene was asked to be the principal of a school for children of internees because of her university education. After her father chose to return to his wife in Japan as an exchange for Allied prisoners of war, Irene accepted the support of the United Church, which offered her a place to stay and encouraged her to finish her degree at University of Toronto. Uchida earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1946, intending to continue her education by getting a Master's degree in social work.

The support and encouragement of one of her professors, however, influenced Uchida to instead pursue the field of human genetics and in 1951 she completed her PhD.


After she finished her PhD, Uchida went to work at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and began studying twins and children with Down syndrome, which was the most common severe birth abnormality at the time.

In 1960, Dr. Uchida was appointed Director of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba and began teaching at University of Manitoba. After scientists in France discovered that people Down syndrome had 47 chromosomes instead of the normal 46, she decided to investigate the cause of the extra chromosome. Cytogenetics, the study of chromosomes in cells, focuses on the identification and behavior of chromosomes, and Dr. Uchida was the first scientist to bring this technique to Canada. During ward rounds in the nursery to discuss cytogenetics of Down syndrome as well as a birth-defect syndrome found to be caused by trisomy 18, Dr. Uchida investigated the possibility of a newborn with this birth defect. She persuaded her lab, then studying chromosomes of fruit flies, to study the chromosomes from the blood sample taken from the nursery, found trisomy, and started Canada's first clinical cytogenetics program.

In her career as a professor at University of Manitoba, Dr. Uchida facilitated two studies to investigate a possible connection between extensive maternal radiation and Down syndrome births. The studies she conducted involved 972 children in each category studied, and she found strong evidence that abdominal x-ray exposure led to nondisjunction in their pregnancies and risk of birth defects.

Dr. Uchida was the director of the Cytogenetics Laboratory in Oshawa, Ontario, and was responsible for diagnosing chromosome differences in patients with abnormalities and developmental disabilities as well as diagnosed irregularities in the chromosomes of fetuses.

In 1970, Dr. Uchida founded the Cytogenetics Laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her expertise in genetics led to her become the President of the American Society of Human Genetics in 1960, a member of the Science Council of Canada from 1970-1973, a member of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Services for Ontario in 1979, a consultant to the American Board of Medical Genetics in 1980, and a member of the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists from 1980-1984, among other things.

Dr. Uchida published more than 95 scientific papers and received numerous awards for her research.


Dr. Irene Uchida believed that you can use genetics to learn a person's problems and help them. After suffering from dementia for over a decade, Irene died in a nursing home in Toronto on July 30, 2013 at the age of 96.


Irene Uchida, World-renowned leader in genetics research Toronto Globe and Mail obituary, 2013 Sept. 14

[1] Globe and Mail

[2] The Bulletin, 2013

[3] Library and Archives Canada