Brief histories of Asia's scientists

Research stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. Therefore, we would like to invite you to look back and get to know some fascinating researchers who have made significant contributions. We will be continually adding to this list. If you would like to suggest a researcher, please email us at info AT researchsea.com.

Umetaro Suzuki

The vitamin pioneer

Umetaro Suzuki (7 April 1874 – 20 September 1943) was a Japanese scientist best remembered for his research on beriberi, a disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency, characterized by limb stiffness, paralysis and pain. Suzuki discovered that consumption of rice bran prevented beriberi and was the first to successfully extract vitamin B1 from rice bran. Through experiments, Suzuki confirmed that vitamin B1 was essential to prevent beriberi, thus laying the foundation for vitamin science. Suzuki’s findings were initially dismissed by the medical community which thought beriberi was caused by microbial infection, until biochemist Casimir Funk reported he had crystallized a vitamin B compound from rice bran. In addition to isolating vitamin B1, Suzuki also extracted vitamin A from cod liver oil and invented a synthetic saké that did not require preservatives. 

Kimishige and Teruko Ishizaka

The immunologists who studied allergic reactions

Kimishige Ishizaka (3 December 1925 – 6 July 2018) and his wife, Teruko Ishizaka (28 September 1926 – 4 June 2019) discovered the antibody class Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that triggers allergic reactions. They also discovered that IgE antibodies attach to white blood cells, known as mast cells, releasing histamine, which causes allergic reactions. A pioneer of her time, Teruko earned a M.D. and Ph.D. in medical science from the Tokyo’s Women’s Medical University and from the University of Tokyo respectively. Teruko was the head of the Division of Allergy at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, while Kimishige was the first scientific director of the institute. The Ishizakas supported young scientists and encouraged a collaborative spirit among the researchers at the institute. Throughout their careers, the duo co-authored over 100 papers and reviews on allergy-related topics and won several awards.

Hsien Wu

The biochemist who uncovered protein unfolding

Hsien Wu (24 November 1893 – 8 August 1959) is widely regarded as the founder of biochemistry and nutrition science in China. He was the first to propose that protein denaturation was caused by the unfolding of the protein, instead of chemical alteration. He also developed the first assay to measure blood-glucose, known as the Folin-Wu method. Wu noticed that many Chinese were malnourished and suspected that it was due to their unbalanced vegetarian diet. By studying the relationship between food and human health, Wu found that protein combinations were critical for a balanced diet and set up nutritional guidelines for a complete diet. The findings, together with an analysis of the food composition in China and a nutrition survey, were the first systematic study of nutrition in China. Wu was a prolific researcher who published 163 papers in areas such as protein denaturation, nutrition and immunochemistry.          

G.N. Ramachandran

The founder of the Ramachandran plot

Gopalasamudram Narayanan Ramachandran (8 October 1922 – 7 April 2001) is best known for developing the Ramachandran plot to understand the structure of short chains of amino acids, known as peptides. He was also the first to propose the triple-helical model for the structure of collagen. Most of Ramachandran’s major discoveries were made when India had just achieved independence, a time when scientific research was a low priority. Ramanchandran established the molecular biophysics departments at the University of Madras and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which have become internationally recognized centres for biophysics research and graduate education in India.

Srinivasa

The mathematical genius with no formal training

Srinivasa Ramanujan (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was a math prodigy and widely considered one of India’s greatest mathematicians. Despite having almost no formal training in mathematics, he made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions. His most famous achievements include the Ramanujan Conjecture, a mathematical statement that has not been fully proven, and the Hardy-Ramanujan number 1729, the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. In his short life, Ramanujan recorded thousands of results in three notebooks and a sheaf of papers (the fourth lost notebook). His notebooks, known as Ramanujan notebooks, still inspire mathematical works decades later. 

Janaki

The botanist who sweetened sugarcane

Janaki Ammal Edavalath Kakkat (4 November 1897 – 7 February 1984) was an Indian botanist who studied plant chromosomes and genetics. When she was a child. Kakkat’s parents encouraged her intellectual pursuits. After several teaching stints in India and US, Kakkat received a fellowship to pursue a Doctor of Science in botany in the US, becoming one of the few Asian women to be conferred a D.Sc. by the University of Michigan. Her research on chromosome numbers in plants was vital in the selection of varieties for cross-breeding to produce sweeter sugarcane. Kakkat created a high-yielding variety of sugarcane, a new variety of eggplant named Janaki Brengal, and a variety of magnolias named Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.

Abdus Salam

An advocate for science in developing countries

Mohammad Abdus Salam (29 January 1926 – 21 November 1996) was a theoretical physicist and the first Pakistani to receive a Nobel Prize in science. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for contributions to the electroweak unification theory, which explains the unity of the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism. For more than 40 years, Salam was a prolific researcher in theoretical elementary particle physics, contributing to many discoveries in the field of subatomic particles. A firm believer that "scientific thought is the common and shared heritage of mankind,” he founded Pakistan's space programme, and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, to support researchers from developing countries.

 

Raman

The father of Raman spectroscopy

Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (7 November 1888 – 21 November 1970) was an Indian physicist who performed ground-breaking research in the field of light-scattering. He is best known for discovering that when light passes through a material, some of the deflected light changes wavelength and amplitude – a phenomenon which became known as Raman scattering. The principles of Raman scattering and the Raman effect are applied in Raman spectroscopy, a technique widely used for analysis and identification of materials. For his pioneering work, Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930.

Maryam

The mathematician who drew doodles 

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (12 May 1977 – 14 July 2017) was the first and only woman and Iranian to date to win the Fields Medal in 2014 for her work on curved surfaces. She liked to focus on particularly difficult areas of theoretical mathematics and geometry, and in her short life, made several important contributions to understanding mathematical objects called Riemann surfaces. Describing herself as a “slow” mathematician who appreciated the beauty in mathematics, Mirzakhani often drew doodles on sheets of paper and wrote mathematical formulas around the drawings.

Ikeda

The chemist who discovered a new taste

Kikunae Ikeda (8 October 1864 – 3 May 1936) was a Japanese chemist who discovered the fifth basic taste, umami. Ikeda was curious about the chemical basis of taste, especially why his favourite dashi broth made with kombu, a type of kelp, was particularly delicious. After analysing the chemical composition of kombu, Ikeda extracted glutamate, the compound which was responsible for the savoury flavour. Ikeda named the fifth taste umami, meaning savouriness in Japanese. In 1908, Ikeda acquired a patent for the mass production of glutamate and together with Saburosuke Suzuki II, set up the company Ajinomoto to produce glutamate in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Seok

The scientist who knew only butterflies 

Joo-myung Seok (November 13, 1908 – October 6, 1950) was a Korean butterfly entomologist who made important contributions to the taxonomy of the native butterfly species in Korea. By measuring the wing length and comparing the patterns of over 160,000 cabbage butterflies collected throughout Korea, Seok concluded that about 20 previously classified species were actually all the cabbage white butterfly. Seok organized the butterflies of Korea into about 250 species, a reduction from the 921 species categorized previously. Seok was also a linguist and proponent of non-violence. On October 6, 1950, Joo-myung Seok was mistaken for a communist soldier and shot. It is said that his last words were “I know only butterflies.”

Woo

The botanist who developed the Jeju tangerine

Woo Jang-choon (8 April 1898 – 10 August 1959) was a Korean-Japanese agricultural scientist and botanist. Woo performed horticultural research, first in Japan, then in Korea. Although Woo faced discrimination as a Korean working in Japan, he was a dedicated mentor who guided several Japanese students. When he returned to Korea, Woo developed high quality seeds for staple crops such as cabbages, peppers and onions to improve crop production in South Korea during the 1950s after the country gained independence from Japan. Other significant contributions from his research include disease-resistant seed potatoes as well as the Jeju variety of tangerine.

Chandrasekhar

A man of the stars

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (19 October 1910 – 21 August 1995) was an Indian astrophysicist who studied the structure and evolution of stars. Chandrasekhar showed that the mass of a white dwarf star could not exceed 1.4 times that of the sun, otherwise they would explode or form black holes when they died – a metric named the Chandrasekhar limit. For this discovery, Chandrasekhar, along with William A. Fowler, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983. A dedicated mentor who cared for the personal and intellectual well-being of his students, Chandrasekhar taught courses at the University of Chicago while he was working at the Yerkes Observatory.     

Saruhashi

The nuclear power trailblazer who advocated for women

Japanese geochemist Katsuko Saruhashi (22 March 1920 – 29 September 2007) developed the first method and tools for measuring carbon dioxide in seawater, which became known as Saruhashi’s Table. Her work showed that the Pacific Ocean releases twice as much carbon dioxide as it absorbs, indicating that global warming could not be substantially mitigated by seawater’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Saruhashi also developed a sensitive method for measuring the amounts of Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 in seawater, and ways to use nuclear power peacefully. Her research on the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll helped to determine limits for oceanic nuclear testing. The first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Tokyo and the first woman elected to the Science Council of Japan, she was a strong proponent of equal opportunities for women in science. She established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists as well as the Saruhashi Prize, which is awarded yearly to a female scientist who serves as a role model for younger women scientists

Osamu

The scientist who discovered why jellyfish glow

Osamu Shimomura (27 August 1928 – 19 October 2018) was a Japanese organic chemist and marine biologist who dedicated his career to understanding how organisms emitted light. When he was working at a munitions factory near Nagasaki during World War II, the atomic bomb dropped on the city. Shimomura walked home in a shower of black radioactive rain and may have escaped its deadly effects by taking a quick bath. Shimomura showed that the light-emitting apparatus of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) in jellyfish was contained within the protein, suggesting that the GFP gene may be used as an imaging tool. Since its discovery, the GFP gene has been widely used as a tag to visualize the expression of other genes. For the discovery of GFP, Shimomura, together with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.

Rinchen

The palaeontologist who discovered dinosaurs in the Gobi Desert

Rinchen Barsbold (born 21 December 1935) is a Mongolian palaeontologist and geologist who was instrumental in discovering and recovering one of the largest dinosaur collections in the world from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and China. When studying fossils from the Gobi Desert, he observed that many features previously only known from birds were also present in different lineages of theropod dinosaurs. This observation provided early evidence that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs, a theory that has since been established as accurate. His work not only helped clarify late stages of dinosaur evolution in Eurasia, it also advanced Mongolia’s international reputation in the field.

Jagdish

The father of radio science

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (30 November 1858 – 23 November 1937) was a scientist and inventor who contributed to a wide range of scientific fields such as physics, botany and biology. Throughout his life, Bose conducted research selflessly without desire for personal gains or fame. Bose showed that plants, like animals, react to stimuli through the transmission of electrical impulses. He invented the Crescograph – a device which measures tiny reactions and changes in plant cells in response to stimuli. Bose also made many important contributions to the field of radio science. He developed an improved coherer - a sensitive device to detect radio waves and invented the Crystal Detector, which inspired the first radio receivers. A crater on the moon is named after him. Bose was also a pioneer of science fiction in Indian literature and one of his stories The Story of the Missing won a writing contest organized by a hair-oil company.

Chien-Shiung Wu

The physicist who measured radioactive decay

Chien-Shiung Wu (31 May 1912 – 16 February 1997) was an experimental physicist who made several important contributions to nuclear physics. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project – a top-secret program for the production of nuclear weapons during World War II and helped to develop a process for separating uranium into U235 and U238. She also developed improved Geiger counters to measure nuclear radiation levels. At the time, it was believed that symmetry governed everything in nature – known as the law of Conservation of Parity. Among her contributions, Wu is best known for designing the Wu experiment in which she measured the decay of supercooled radioactive cobalt to investigate if symmetry was also conserved in the behaviour of atomic particles. Her findings showed that symmetry during the decay of atomic particles was not conserved, contradicting the law of Conservation of Parity. In 1978, Wu was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize, a prestigious award which recognizes achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people ... irrespective of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex or political views." For her research on radioactivity, Wu is often referred to as the "Chinese Marie Curie".

Okazaki

The couple who primed DNA replication

Tsuneko (7 June 1933) and Reiji Okazaki (8 October 1930 – 1 August 1975) were a Japanese couple who discovered Okazaki fragments – short sequences of DNA that are synthesized during DNA replication and linked together to form a continuous strand. The couple met in Nagoya University and after obtaining PhDs, started a laboratory to conduct research on DNA replication. Funds were tight and the Okazakis often had to pay for research supplies themselves. After Reiji’s death from leukemia at the age of 44 from radiation exposure during the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II, Tsuneko continued their work, while raising their two children. At the time, female scientists were not recognized as full-fledged researchers in Japan and Tsuneko was encouraged to give up research to raise her young family. With support from the scientific community and a neighbour who helped care for her children, Tsuneko discovered that Okazaki fragments were the starting points of DNA replication. Since then, she has received multiple honours and awards, including the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2000. Tsuneko has advocated for better support for women in science and lower education costs.

Saha

The scientist who described stars

Meghnad Saha (6 October 1893 – 16 February 1956) was an Indian astrophysicist best known for formulating the Saha ionization equation which describes the chemical and physical properties of stars. The Saha equation relates the ionization state of a gas to the temperature of the light source. From the equation, the temperature of stars and relative abundance of chemical elements can be investigated from spectroscopic data. Saha was nominated repeatedly but unsuccessfully for the Nobel Prize in Physics. In addition to his contributions to astrophysics, Saha was also active in politics and education. He founded the journal Science and Culture, helmed several research institutes and scientific societies, and was elected to the Parliament of India in 1952.     

Kimura

The biologist who used mathematics to explain evolution

Motoo Kimura (13 November 1924 – 13 November 1994) was a Japanese theoretical population geneticist who is best remembered for developing the neutral theory of molecular evolution. Using diffusion equations to calculate the probability of beneficial, harmful or neutral genetic changes, he combined population genetics with molecular biology to explain that most mutations are neutral and spread through populations by chance. As a young student, Kimura was interested in plants and excelled in Mathematics. While studying the chromosome structure of lilies, Kimura connected his interests in botany and mathematics, becoming one of few biologists who excelled in both fields. 

Kuroda

The chemist who studied the structures of pigments

Chika Kuroda (24 March 1884 – 8 November 1968) was a Japanese chemist whose research focussed on the structures of natural pigments. Kuroda determined the molecular structure of shikonin, the pigment in purple gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon) as well as the structure of carthamin, the red pigment in safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). Her extraction of quercetin crystals from onion skin led to the development of the antihypertensive drug Kerutin C. Kuroda was a pioneer in many ways. She was amongst the first female students to be admitted to Tohoku Imperial University when it started accepting females and became the first woman in Japan to receive a Bachelor of Science. Kuroda was also the second woman in Japan to receive a doctorate in Science.

Cyril

The chemist who probed the origins of life

Cyril Andrew Ponnamperuma (16 October 1923 – 20 December 1994) was a Sri Lankan chemist who was interested in the origins of life on Earth. His research in chemical evolution showed how inanimate molecules may have given rise to the building blocks of life – a process known as abiogenesis. About 4 billion years ago, chemicals from Earth’s atmosphere came in contact with energy in warm oceans. In this “primordial soup”, atoms and molecules came together to form the precursors of life, which subsequently evolved into living things. While at Ames Laboratory, Ponnamperuma synthesized the building blocks of RNA and DNA as well as the universal energy currency ATP, further showing that organic matter may have originated from chemical compounds. Later in his career, Ponnamperuma embraced the idea that hydrothermal deep-sea vents were the cradles of life, where early organisms exploited chemical gradients to drive synthesis of ATP. Further investigations into the origins of life are ongoing. Ponnamperuma was also actively involved in astrobiology research and was the principal investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to Earth by Project Apollo.

Youyou

The woman who discovered artemisinin

Tu Youyou (born 30 December 1930) is a Chinese pharmaceutical scientist who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on extracting artemisin from sweet wormwood to treat malaria. Tu performed her research during the Cultural Revolution in China, when scientists were persecuted. Trained in traditional Chinese medicine, she screened over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes and made 380 herbal extracts, from 200 herbs, before discovering that artemisinin from sweet wormwood could inhibit the malaria parasite. Her work has helped save millions of lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America where malaria is prevalent.

Esther Park

The first female doctor in Korea

Esther Park (1877-1910), born Kim Jeom-dong, was the first female Korean physician to practise modern medicine in Korea. As a student, Park worked as a translator for American medical missionary Rosetta Sherwood Hall, who inspired Park to become a physician. After studying medicine in the US, Park returned to Korea and worked at the nation’s first hospital for women, Bogu-yeogwan. During the first 10 months there, Park helped more than 3,000 patients. She often travelled to remote villages, providing free medical services. Recognizing the importance of female education, she also trained the first generation of Korean female doctors.  

Kao

The father of fibre optics

Charles Kuen Kao (Nov. 4, 1933 to Sept. 23, 2018) was an engineer who is regarded as the father of fibre optics. His work in the 1960s on long distance signal transmission using very pure glass fibres revolutionized telecommunications, enabling innovations such as the Internet. Kao shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for this achievement. Born in Shanghai, he lived and worked in Hong Kong, the UK, Europe and the US, including at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory and The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Asima

A woman ahead of her time

Indian organic chemist Asima Chatterjee (1917 to 2006) studied the medicinal properties of plant products, especially compounds known as vinca alkaloids. Growing up, she shared her father’s interest in botany and pursued higher education during a period when it was unusual for women to attend university. In 1944, she became the first woman in India to be awarded a Doctor of Science. Chatterjee’s research led to the development of an anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56, as well as several antimalarial drugs. A prolific scientist, Chatterjee published approximately 400 papers in national and international journals.

Ali

Who was Ali?

Little is known about Ali, a teenager from Sarawak, Malaysia, who was chief assistant to the famous naturalist Alfred Wallace. Most of what is known comes from Wallace’s writings. Ali accompanied Wallace on expeditions throughout the Malay Archipelago from December 1855 to February 1862. Initially employed as a servant and cook, he became Wallace’s most trusted assistant. Ali’s skill and dedication to collecting bird specimens enabled several important scientific contributions, including the discovery of the Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii). This photograph is the only known image of Ali.

Katsusaburo Yamagiwa, Koichi Ichikawa

Nobel-worthy cancer research

In 1915, pathologist Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and his research assistant Koichi Ichikawa became the first to prove that chronic exposure to chemicals can cause cancer. At Tokyo Imperial University, they induced tumour growth by rubbing coal tar on rabbit ears. Yamagiwa was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1925, 1926 and 1928, and again in 1936 with Ichikawa. They lost out to another scientist whose cancer research was soon found to be wrong, yet the prize was maintained. Today, the first samples of induced tumour are displayed in specimen rooms at the University of Tokyo and Hokkaido University, where Ichikawa worked in veterinarian medicine and comparative pathology.

Nakaya

The first artificial snowflake

Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya (1900-1962) made the world’s first artificial snowflakes. He started his research on snow crystals in the early 1930s at Hokkaido University, where there is an unlimited supply of natural snow in winter. By taking over 3,000 photographs, he established a classification of natural snow crystals and described their relationship with weather conditions. His work still remains a primary reference on crystal shapes. In 1936, after several years of research, he successfully produced the first artificial snow crystal on the tip of a single rabbit hair in his laboratory. "Snowflakes are letters sent from heaven," he wrote in his book “Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial”.

Ionics

Solid state ionics

Takehiko Takahashi of Nagoya University was the first to coin the term ‘solid ionics’ in 1967. The field of solid-state ionics originated in Europe, but Takehiko Takahashi of Nagoya University in Japan was the first to coin the term ‘solid ionics’ in 1967. ‘Solid-state ionics’ first appeared in 1971 in another of his papers, and was likely a play on ‘solid-state electronics’, another rapidly growing field at the time. Over the decades, Japanese researchers have expanded the understanding of ionic conduction in solid compounds involving lithium, sodium-sulphur and perovskite structures, which led to the development of a variety of sensors and batteries.

Pearls

Sparking the cultured pearl industry

The techniques that make industrial pearl culturing possible were developed over a century ago at the Misaki Marine Biological Station in Japan. Founded in 1886, MMBS is one of the world’s oldest marine stations and is part of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Science. The station’s first director, Professor Kakichi Mitsukuri, emphasized to Kokichi Mikimoto in 1890 that stimulating pearl sac formation was important for pearl growth, and they went on to successfully develop methods for culturing pearls. Their achievements are credited with laying the foundation for today’s pearl farming industry.