The first Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was Susumu Tonegawa, who won the 1987 prize for his fundamental discoveries concerning the body's production of antibodies. His research explained how the immune system can produce a vast diversity of antibodies, each of which reacts with and counteracts the effects of a separate antigen (a foreign molecule or microbe). He demonstrated how only a limited number of genes could be rearranged to produce millions of different antibodies in an individual, thus revealing a fundamental mechanism in the immune system.
Tonegawa was born on September 6, 1939, in Nagoya, Japan, on the southern part of Honshu Island. He was the second child in the family, having an older brother and a younger brother and sister. His father was an engineer for a textile company. Early in his life, Tonegawa lived in several small rural towns as the family moved to accommodate his father's jobs. When he was an adolescent, Tonegawa and his brother were sent to Tokyo to live with relatives so that they could receive a better education. He attended the prestigious Hibiya High School in Tokyo, from which he graduated in 1959. While in high school, he developed an interest in chemistry.
In 1959, Tonegawa entered the Imperial University of Kyoto (about 50 miles west of his birthplace), from which he received a BS degree in chemistry in 1963. While at the Imperial University, he became interested in molecular biology. To further his education, Tonegawa went to the United States in 1963 to attend the University of California, San Diego. From 1963 to 1964, he was a research assistant and became a teaching assistant in 1964. For 4 years (1964-1968), he taught and pursued graduate work, earning a PhD degree in molecular biology in 1968.
Tonegawa then accepted a postdoctoral position at the Salk Institute in San Diego, where he worked for 2 years (1968-1970). Because his visa expired in 1970, Tonegawa was required by law to leave the United States for 2 years before he could receive another visa. In 1971, he received a Fulbright travel grant, which enabled him to go to Switzerland, where he became a member of the Basel Institute of Immunology. Instead of returning to the United States after 2 years, he remained in Switzerland until 1981. It was in Basel that he performed most of the work for which he received the Nobel Prize.
In 1981, Tonegawa returned to the United States and joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. There, he became a professor of molecular biology at the Center of Cancer Research, conducting research and teaching in the Department of Biology.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Tonegawa has received many honors and awards, one of which was the Albert Lasker Medical Award (1987). He was honored on a stamp (Scott No. 1635c) issued by Gambia in 1995, on a sheet of stamps honoring Nobel laureates.
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