Two very important people were born on February 17th and February 18th. Important for Japan, for science – and for the events described in my “The Year of the Dragon” books.
In 1796, on February 17th, a child was born into the family of von Siebolds, Wurzburg doctors and professors of medicine. Christened Philipp Franz Balthasar, the boy studied natural sciences under some of the best names at the time, and by 1820, he became a medical doctor.
A friend invited him to join the Dutch Navy, and in 1822 Philipp Von Siebold embarked on his first journey to the Orient, on board of a Dutch frigate Ariana. It was to be the most important decision of his life; while recovering from illness at the Batavian governor’s villa, he impressed his peers so much they invited him to visit the secret jewel in the Dutch colonial crown: the Dejima Outpost in Japan.
He arrived in Nagasaki on August 11, 1823 as the new resident physician and scientist. The mutual first impressions must have been great: von Siebold stayed in Japan for the next seven years, establishing a medical school and teaching modern Western science to 50 students; in turn, the Japanese taught him their customs, and welcomed him among themselves as equal. Eventually, as often happened with the lonely residents of Dejima far away from home, he found love: a Nagasaki woman by the name of Otaki.
Siebold’s legacy today lies mostly in his botanical interests; his collection of Japanese flora was unparalleled at the time. His name is remembered in many of the plant species he first described for the benefit of the West. Alas, his varied interests proved his downfall, when in 1826 he was discovered to be in possession of detailed maps of Japan and accused of spying. In 1829 he was forced to leave Nagasaki, abandoning his wife and his two year old daughter, Ine. He had to wait thirty years before the transforming Japan allowed him to return. By then, Ine had grown up to become Japan’s first female doctor, and established a gynecology clinic in Nagasaki.
One of Siebold’s 50 students was another birthday boy: Keisuke Ito. Born February 18th in 1803 in Nagoya, thanks to the knowledge he had gained in Nagasaki and his own talent, Keisuke became one of early modern Japan’s most prominent physicians. In 1852 he returned to his homeland to study smallpox – and developed an effective vaccine to the disease which ravaged Japan for centuries, killing peasants and Emperors alike. In 1868 he established a medical school in Nagoya which formed the basis of what is now Nagoya University. By the time he died at the grand age of 98 (only two years before the death of his mentor’s daughter), he was a baron and the professor of University of Tokyo; his long life having spanned the age of greatest change and turmoil in Japan’s history.
Happy Birthday, Phillip Von Siebold!
Happy Birthday, Keisuke Ito!