The Story of Satoshi Omura(Ups and Downs as a Researcher )

First Step as a Researcher - Wiping Blackboards

From April 1, 1965, Satoshi Omura became a researcher at the Kitasato Institute.

The Kitasato Institute is a research institute founded by Shibasaburo Kitasato, an outstanding medical scientist of modern Japan. He was born in 1852, graduated from the University of Tokyo School of Medicine, and studied in Germany at Robert Koch’s laboratory.

Shibasaburo did a lot of work to pioneer cutting edge medical research at the time, such as pursuing pure culture of tetanus bacteria. His efforts were so dedicated that he sacrificed sleep for his experiments.

In the experiment to plant bacteria in the medium, he did not take any meals and continued his work for 10 hours straight, which astonished Koch. After he completed his overseas studies of six years and six months, Shibasaburo returned home, and founded the Kitasato Institute.

Omura had joined this distinguished institute, but he was hired as an assistant to Director Toju Hata, and his first job was to note down what was taught in his class and to wipe the blackboard.

Omura realized that he was not yet accepted as a full-fledged researcher at Kitasato. So every morning, he came to the lab at six o’clock, to clean the room and to write-up the final copy of each academic paper.

Back then, there were not any word processors or computers. Writing up the final draft was a very important task. Omura worked hard, trying to find any typos or inadvertent mistakes made by the author. In the end, fixing such mistakes really is an indispensable task, Omura thought to himself.

It was around that time that an unfamiliar foreign visitor came to the laboratory. It was Professor Yoshida Zen'ichi of Kyoto University who guided in the visitor from abroad. Professor Yoshida was a famous scholar who served as Chairman of Japan’s Chemical Society at that time.

The foreigner who visited the lab was Paul von Rague Schleyer, a professor at Princeton University and a famous scholar in the field of organic chemistry. He had read Omura’s paper written in English. Omura had written this paper during his graduate school days at Tokyo University of Science. Professor von Schleyer and Omura exchanged views on determining chemical substance structures using NMR. Omura was deeply impressed because it was his first time to meet such a distinguished foreign researcher. Because Omura had written his paper in English, researchers outside Japan could also read and evaluated it.

"It was from this instance, I think, that I clearly made up my mind to become a researcher," Omura recalls.

Highly Evaluated for His Theses

Omura's salary at that time was not high, so life was not easy. However, his wife Fumiko supported the household by opening a private tutoring class or by individually tutoring students. Fumiko who was bright-natured cooperated without any complaints. When Omura got his Nobel Prize, one reporter asked how he felt. “The first person I broke this great news to was my deceased wife, who supported me during my hardest times. I talked to her in my heart,”responded Omura.

Omura started his research on chemical structure determination. The Kitasato laboratory already had equipment for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and infrared spectroscopy (IR). However, the only person who could read and decipher the data was Omura. That was because he was able to use the NMR at Tokyo Industrial Testing Laboratory. It was the only NMR in Japan at that time. Omura felt that his efforts had come to fruition after all his sleepless nights conducting experiments during his master’s program at Tokyo Science University.

Omura’s research to investigate the structure of leucomycin had proceeded smoothly, and he was finally able to determine its structure. Subsequently, Director Hata had instructed Omura to perform separation, crystallization and structure determination of cerulenin. Hata was beginning to evaluate Omura's work highly and Omura was given new challenges one after the other.

Cerulenin is an antibiotic produced by a certain microorganism. Omura performed this task well and published it as a paper. Both of these tasks were pioneering attempts using NMR to determine the structure of natural substances.

Suffering from Neurosis – Fumiko Saves Omura

The research progresses steadily and Omura wrote papers one after another and presented them. However, Omura gradually lost the purpose in his research. Was his research really useful or not?

Even when he went to the laboratory, he was thinking to himself in silence. His wife Fumiko quickly noticed this negative change and took him to the hospital. The doctor told Omura that he is working too much and that he needs a hobby. Lending his ear to the doctor, Omura takes up golf.

Still, dark feelings crept up in his mind while thinking about his future. Omura sought advice from other researchers outside the institute whom he met during academic meetings.

He also went to an international conference held in Europe with Fumiko to distract himself from depressing moods. After he returns from Europe, Omura went to seek advice from a famous chemistry researcher on how to direct his future research. He gives an unexpected advice to Omura.

"Go study in the United Sates! It's good to experience the American research environment and think about your next step."

Omura was taken aback. The idea of studying abroad had never occurred to him until then. These words changed Omura’s life.

At Tokyo Science University Graduate School
Omura achieved many results as a researcher at the Kitasato Institute