THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The Takamine family’s three generations of marvels in health science

It is a great privilege to contribute to the Nichi Bei Weekly’s special issue on health and wellness. One extraordinary American saga in this area is that of chemist Jokichi Takamine Sr. and his family. Takamine was arguably the most famous Nikkei in the United States, if not in the Western world, at the time of his death in 1922. However, his celebrity has diminished over time, while the name Takamine has become better known as a brand of guitars (whose name stems from Japan’s Mt. Takamine, and not the Takamine family). Perhaps more importantly, the story of Jokichi Takamine’s descendants, who have continued to produce leaders in health sciences and business over multiple generations, remains largely unstudied.

Jokichi Takamine Sr. was born Nov. 3, 1854 in Takaoka, Japan. His father was Seiichi Takamine, a doctor of the Kaga domain (today’s Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures).

He was educated in science, first in Japan at Kobu Daigakko (now University of Tokyo), and then for one year at University of Glasgow and Anderson’s College in Scotland, where he was sent by the Japanese government.

In 1883, he returned home to Japan and was hired by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce. The following year, the young scientist was dispatched by the Japanese government to serve as co-commissioner of the Japanese pavilion at the Cotton States Exhibition in New Orleans. Among the exhibits at the pavilion was the Japanese plant kuzu thus the kudzu vine made its first entry into the United States. While at the fair, Takamine studied fertilizers, and was impressed by the use of phosphates in soil. He stayed on afterward in New Orleans at a local boardinghouse owned by Col. Ebenezer Hitch, a Union Army veteran, and soon fell in love with Hitch’s daughter Caroline. The two were married, and after a honeymoon studying phosphates, they moved to Japan. Takamine settled in the Tokyo region, where he founded the
Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company. Meanwhile, the couple had two sons, Jokichi Jr. (named for his father) and Eben Takashi (named for his maternal grandfather).

After a few years in Japan, the Takamine family returned to the United States in 1890 and settled in Chicago. There, Takamine started experimenting with koji, a culture made from mold (fungus) grown on rice or wheat bran whose enzymes break down starch molecules, and which aids fermentation of sake and soybeans. Takamine adapted koji for use as a substitute for malt in distilling whiskey. After moving to Peoria, Ill., the center of the Whiskey Trust, Takamine was able to develop a new whiskey using the cheaper process, although he developed serious liver disease soon after and was forced to return to Chicago for surgery. In 1894, he founded the Takamine Ferment Company. Under the sponsorship of the drug giant Parke-Davis, he patented his artificial enzyme, which he dubbed Taka-Diastase, and licensed it to Parke-Davis as a digestive aid for treatment of dyspepsia.

The product was such a success that in 1897 Takamine moved with his family to New York. There, using his profits from Taka-diastase, he established an independent research facility, the Takamine laboratory, on East 103rd St. In 1899 he was granted a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Imperial University in Tokyo (in 1906 he would be granted a second doctorate in pharmacology).

With assistance from a young Japanese chemist, Keizo Uenaka, Takamine began research into glandular secretions. In 1900, he succeeded in reducing to crystalline form a powder based on the secretions of the adrenal gland, which would raise the blood pressure of humans when injected into their bloodstream. Takamine dubbed the product Adrenalin, and secured a patent. (While the originality of Takamine’s was challenged by chemist John Jacob Abel of Johns Hopkins University, who had previously developed epinephrine into a powder, and his patents were contested in court, Takamine’s patents were ultimately upheld in federal court in 1911). With the proceeds from his twin discoveries, Takamine became a rich man. He largely withdrew from scientific research and concentrated on business affairs: in 1913 he founded the Sankyo Pharmaceutical Company in Japan (today Daiichi Sankyo), and became its first president. He also expanded his original company into the International Takamine Ferment Company. In 1915, he moved the Takamine Laboratory to Clifton, N.J., and named his son Jokichi Jr. as president.

Takamine used his wealth to provide a comfortable life. In addition to taking an apartment on New York’s opulent Riverside Drive, he built a summer estate, Merriewold, on 2,000 acres of land near Passaic, N.J. He took over Ho-o-Den, the Japanese pavilion that had been built for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase exhibition in St. Louis. Once the fair closed. Takamine had the pavilion dismantled and shipped from St. Louis to Merriewold, where it was installed within a 25-acre Japanese garden. He also spent much time in leadership of Japanese community activities, and dedicated himself to improving U.S.-Japanese relations. In 1906, he became founding president of the Nippon Club, a social and business fraternity for Japanese immigrants in New York, and helped found the Nippon Jin Kai (Japanese Association).

In 1912, Takamine arranged for the mayor of Tokyo to offer three thousand Japanese cherry blossom trees to the government of Washington D.C. as a symbol of Japanese-American friendship. After the initial shipment of plants was rejected as diseased, Takamine himself ordered a new shipment, and isolated them in greenhouses until they were approved. The cherry blossom trees were planted in the Tidal Basin, where they remain a leading tourist attraction of the Nation’s Capital.

Takamine suffered for many years from liver disease. In mid-1922, while he was ailing, he converted to Catholicism. In July of 1922 he died, leaving the bulk of his fortune to Caroline and his sons and their wives. Caroline soon after married Charles Beach, who spent much of the family fortune. His children, however, would continue work in health science research. The first to enter the business was Jokichi Jr. He attended Horace Mann School and Yale University, then studied chemistry in Germany and at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. After returning to the United States, he entered business with his father, directing the Takamine Laboratory. He married Hilda Petrie, and in the succeeding years had two children, Caroline and Jokichi Takamine III. Following the elder Takamine’s death, Jokichi Jr. assumed control of all of the family businesses, including the International Takamine Ferment Company, and the firm of Takamine & Darby. In addition, he served as a director of the Bankers Petroleum Company and director of the Clifton Piece Dye Works. In 1930, Jokichi Jr. died, at the young age of 41, when he fell from a 14th story window at New York’s Hotel Roosevelt. His grieving mother was convinced that Jokichi was murdered by Prohibition-era gangsters pressuring him to reveal his whiskey fermentation process. However, following an official investigation, authorities determined that the death was accidental, and revealed that Jokichi had spent the evening carousing in nightclubs, had entered the hotel in a state of intoxication, and had been in the company of a young woman who was not his wife.

Following Jokichi Jr.’s death, Eben Takamine became the head of the family. Born in 1890, he had likewise attended Yale University. Not long after his graduation, he married Ethel Johnson and went into business as a manufacturer and importer of machinery. In the years following his father’s death, Eben’s life shifted. In 1925, he and his wife divorced, and he left New York to live in Arizona for a time. In 1928, he eloped to Maryland to marry Odette Jean, a former showgirl with the Ziegfield Follies. With his brother’s death, Eben was thrown into managing the family businesses. He kept them going and even helped expand them during the Great Depression, and they prospered during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II, the Takamine Laboratories plant was surrounded by a police guard, who prevented the employees from entering. Because Eben was unable to become a U.S. citizen, despite his mother’s citizenship, due to his birth in Japan, he may have feared that the business would be closed. In the event, however, he was permitted to remain, and the company contributed to the war effort by developing penicillinase, an enzyme used to assay the new antibiotic “wonder drug” penicillin.

In 1943, Eben married his third wife, Catherine MacMahon, an English woman. In 1953, Eben Takamine died — ironically, his death came just weeks after he finally became an American citizen, following passage of the McCarran-Walter Act. His widow Catherine sold off the family businesses, which were subsequently resold and dispersed. The Takamine Laboratory was bought by Miles Inc. Catherine later financed the creation of the Takamine Garden, a Japanese garden featuring a pond and Japanese maples, within the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

A third-generation family member engaged in health science is Jokichi “Joe” Takamine III. Born in 1924, he was only 5 when his father Jokichi Jr. died, and he was brought up by his mother. After receiving his MD in 1953, Joe Takamine made addiction medicine his specialty.

“Addiction is the most untreated treatable disease in America,” he once said, “The message we want to get out to families is that there is hope — people not only can survive, they can recover and lead whole lives.” Takamine served as a medical director at various California hospitals, in addition to his private practice and hospital staff appointments. He also served as chairman of the American Medical Association Task Force on Alcoholism, and was a member of the American Medical Association Task Force on Drugs. His most notable position was at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, where he ran the 21-day detox program. Among his patients were notable entertainment industry figures such as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and SlipKnot’s Paul Gray. Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut, later recalled that he met the lean sandy-haired doctor of internal medicine when he was admitted to St. John’s to treat his alcoholism. Takamine told him, “You may not be responsible for your disease, but you sure should be responsible for your recovery — and that is your choice. There is only one real reason for relapse. You want to … and you choose to do so.” In support of his work on addiction, in 1986 he produced a video, “Conquering Cocaine.”

In 2007, Takamine was honored by Phoenix House, a substance abuse treatment and prevention organization, for his dedication to the field of substance abuse treatment. He has also has been recognized for his service to the community by the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependency and has been a recipient of the National Drug Abuse Medicine Award. He was certified in 1990 by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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