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The Human Pin Cushion
In the venerable tradition of physicians experimenting on themselves to test theories or medications, immunologist Kimishige Ishizaka holds an exalted position among the 20th century’s most innovative—and fearless—human guinea pigs.
So frequently did Ishizaka subject himself to injections of antibodies that could cause severe allergic reactions that The New York Times praised his courage in “transforming himself into a human pin cushion” to advance his research.
Ishizaka, who conducted numerous landmark studies at Johns Hopkins as a professor of biology, medicine and microbiology from 1970 to 1989, and as head of immunology from 1981 to 1989, died on July 6, 2018, at his home in Yamagata, Japan. He was 92.
Along with his wife, Teruko Matsuura Ishizaka, herself an accomplished scientist, he established the basis for today’s monitoring, treatment and prevention of such conditions as drug and food allergies, hay fever, and asthma.
Their research—initially conducted at the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital (now National Jewish Health) in Denver—led to the 1966 discovery of the rare but potent Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which prompt the most inflammatory allergic reactions. Ishizaka’s studies not only identified IgE but explained how it worked.
During his nearly two-decade tenure at Johns Hopkins, Ishizaka became the first foreign-born scientist elected president of the American Association of Immunologists, a post he held from 1984 to 1985.
Ishizaka was recruited from Johns Hopkins to become the scientific director and later the president of the newly founded La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in California, of which he was considered the founding father. Known to colleagues and friends as “Kimi,” he retired in 1996 and settled in Yamagata, his wife’s hometown in northern Japan. In 2000, he won the Japan Prize, among that nation’s highest honors, from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan.