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Medical History

Reflecting Our Dark Past

By Jim Kronenberg


UGUSTUS M. TANAKA, MD  (“Call  me   Gus”)  practiced  surgery  for  40  years   in  Ontario,  Oregon,  where  he  lives   with  Teddy,  his  wife  of  nearly  sixty  years.   He  served  as  President  of  the  Oregon   Medical  Association,  and  as  Chair  of  the   Oregon  Board  of  Medical  Examiners  and   The  Foundation  for  Medical  Excellence. Gus  was  born  in  Portland  on   August  3,  1923,  to  Benjamin  Tanaka,  a   general  practitioner  of  Hawaiian  birth   and  the  fourth  Japanese  graduate  of  the   University  of  Oregon  Medical  School   (1920),  and  his  wife,  Michiye.  “My  mother   was  afraid  to  go  to  the  hospital,  so  my   father  had  to  find  a  midwife,  of  all  things!” Following  the  infamous  Japanese  attack   on  Pearl  Harbor,  the  FBI  arrested  alien   followed  by  special  Japanese  language   Japanese  and  Japanese-­American  community   training  at  the  University  of  Minnesota.   leaders  without  regard  to  their  citizenship.   He  was  then  shipped  to  Japan  as  a  member   “Three  FBI  agents  came  to  our  house…  My   of  the  post-­war  Army  of  Occupation. father  was  looked  upon  as  a  community   Through  the  G.  I.  Bill,  Gus  enrolled  in  the   leader.  By  midnight,  he  was  gone.” State  University  of  New  York  College  of   “I  was  only  an  18-­year-­old  kid  back  then.   Medicine  where  he  excelled  academically.   Because  I  spoke  English  better  than   He  graduated  in  1951  and  took  his  surgical   my  mother,  they  asked  me  to  produce   internship  and  residency  at  the  3,500-­bed   any  and  all  weapons.  They  confiscated   Kings  County  Hospital  in  New  York.   all  our  cameras…  all  correspondence   Career  expectations  were  high  when  a   from  Japan,  all  newspapers,  magazines,   setback  struck:  “During  my  internship,  I   and  publications  in  Japanese.  They   came  down  with  tuberculosis  requiring   demanded  that  I  produce  the  short  wave   hospitalization  in  the  TB  sanitarium.  That   radio  transmitter  that  Dad  must  have   had  a  very  sobering  effect  on  me.  It  took   around  the  house  somewhere  and,  when   some  of  my  drive  to  achieve.” I  was  unable  to  produce  one,  they  gave   During  his  convalescence,  Gus  met   me  a  frightening  lecture  on  the  dire   Teddy,  the  night  supervisor  of  nurses   consequences  that  would  befall  me  if  I  did   at  the  Memorial  Hospital  for  Cancer  in   not  cooperate  fully.” Manhattan.  Ironically,  Teddy  grew  up  in   Gus,  freshman  at  Reed  College,  was  given   Ontario  and  had  left  home  shortly  before   considerable  support  by  the  school  to   the  war  to  study  nursing  at  St.  Mary’s   transfer  to  Haverford  College,  a  pacifist   Hospital  in  Rochester,  Minnesota.  Gus   Quaker  school  in  Pennsylvania,  thereby   and  Teddy  were  married  in  New  York  City   avoiding  a  lengthy  internment  with  his   on  Valentine’s  Day,  1953. mother  and  siblings  in  the  Minidoka,   When  Gus  returned  to  Ontario  to   Idaho,  concentration  camp. visit,  he  found  his  father  in  dire  need   While  at  Haverford,  he  was  drafted  into   of  help.  After  five  years  as  a  “prisoner   the  U.  S.  Army.  He  completed  segregated   of  war”  in  a  Santa  Fe  federal  detention   basic  training  at  Fort  Blanding,  Florida,   center,  Dr.  Ben  Tanaka  was  shunned  by   24 | Medicine in Oregon

the  medical  community—first  in  Portland,   and  then  Ontario.  His  role  as  head  of  the   prison  hospital  left  him  exhausted.  Gus   remembers  his  father  “at  65,  when  most  of   his  doctor  colleagues  were  starting  to  retire,   Dad  was  struggling  to  start  a  practice   again,”  in  a  run  down  home/office  on  the   seedy  side  of  Ontario. Recognizing  the  desperation  of  his  father’s   situation,  Gus  “…decided  to  become   a  small  town  country  doctor  back  in   rural  Oregon…  Thinking  back  on  those   tortuous  events…  I  have  no  regrets  and,   in  many  ways,  I  achieved  a  different  level   of  satisfaction  and  achievement  from   that  which  I  had  envisioned  for  myself  in   medical  school.” With  his  son’s  help,  Ben’s  practice  was   eventually  a  success,  and  Gus  went   on  to  his  own  distinguished  career  in   surgery,  also  providing  the  compassionate   community  leadership  for  which  he  is  so   admired  and  respected.  Gus  never  forgot   the  injustice  that  is  so  easy  to  impose  on   others,  and  continues  his  crusade  to  teach   succeeding  generations  about  the  Japanese-­ American  Relocation  Program  that,  for   so  many  years,  contravened  what  we  now   consider  to  be  American  ideals.  „

Spring 2012