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Kazue Togasaki: One Pioneering Doctor's Journey From Internment Camp to Delivering 10,000 Babies

Dr. Kazue Togasaki became one of the first Japanese American women to earn a medical degree in the US.

In the midst of World War II, as many people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in internment camps, a pioneering doctor helped ensure that pregnant women got the best care she could provide. Dr. Kazue Togasaki fought sexism and racism to become one of the first Japanese American women to earn a medical degree in the US. Over the course of her remarkable career, she delivered over 10,000 babies, including 50 during one month at the Tanforan Assembly Center. "In other camps, I know they’d send the pregnant women out to the nearest county hospital to deliver, but I never thought about sending them out from Tanforan," she recalled years later. "I thought it was my duty."

Born to Japanese immigrants in San Francisco in 1897, Togasaki was interested in medicine from an early age, particularly after her family survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 190, and the city-wide fire that followed. "I remember waking up that day... and the chimney had fallen in, and the kitchen was filled with soot," she recounted. "That afternoon and for two days in the daytime we sat, watching the city burn." Togasaki went on to earn a bachelor's degree in zoology from Stanford in 1920. However, she explained, "there was nothing for a Japanese girl to do, except maybe be a salesgirl, and my father wouldn’t let me do that, so I got a job as a maid working in a family for about a year — it was crazy and it was no fun."

She decided to go into medicine and finished a two-year nursing program at Children’s Hospital at the top of her class. She struggled to find work, however, observing that "the climate in San Francisco was that they just 'didn’t use' Japanese nurses." Determined to practice medicine but unable to find a local university open to women or Japanese Americans, Togasaki went to Philadelphia in 1933 to study at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, the second medical institution in the world established to train female doctors (above left she is pictured during a photo shoot at medical school).

After receiving her medical degree, Togasaki returned to San Francisco and joined a private medical practice until World War II. She chose to specialize in obstetrics, serving mainly Japanese American clients. Her practice was successful, and by 1938 she had purchased her own home at the heart of San Francisco's Japanese American community. But with the Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent U.S. declaration of war against Japan and formal entry into WWII the following day, everything changed.

When the internment of people of Japanese ancestry began in 1942, Togasaki was sent to Tanforan Assembly Center, pictured at right above, where she was asked to set up medical services at the internment camp and lead the all Japanese-American medical team which handled everything from basic care to vaccinations to births. In the camp's first days, with little infrastructure in place, Togasaki had to perform an emergency delivery; she ordered onlookers to tear off a laundry room door so she could use it as a delivery table. Her first month at Tanforan, Togasaki delivered 50 babies, and she went on to provide medical services at the Stockton Assembly Center and the Tule Lake, Poston, Manzanar and Topaz internment camps until she was released in fall of 1943

When she returned home, despite asking a friend to care for her house, everything was in shambles: "there wasn’t much left, all my good things were gone," she recalled. "I did get my house back, but it was one grand mess.... I think that happened to most of the Japanese." She started over again with her medical practice as well, opening a new practice in her neighborhood, where she became a mainstay of the community for over 40 years. She was known for treating families regardless of their ability to pay, and she often took unwed mothers and terminally ill patients into her home for care. All told, during her long career she delivered over 10,000 babies; The San Francisco Examiner named her as one of its "Most Distinguished Women of 1970."

Sadly, Togasaki had to close her practice when she began showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 75; she died in 1992 at the age of 95. But she left behind a legacy within her community having delivered multiple generations of many families in San Francisco. Her spirit also lives on in the students whose interest in medicine she fostered, and in the Japanese American community that she supported throughout the remainder of her life. "I just started over again," she said. "I set up practice here in this neighborhood, and everybody was happy to see a Japanese woman doctor."

Books About Female Doctors and the Internment Camp Experience

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t want to be a wife, or a teacher, or a seamstress: she wanted to be a doctor! But in the 1830s, that just wasn't something women did. Elizabeth wasn't swayed, though: when people told her she wasn’t smart enough, or strong enough, she knew better. She fought her way past detractors and skeptics to attend medical school, and not only was she the first woman to graduate from a medical degree in the US, she became the first woman to join the UK Medical Register. Her brilliant career would become an inspiration for generations of women after her. With its colorful art and inspiring tone, this is sure to be a favorite for would-be doctors everywhere.

The Bracelet

The Bracelet

Written by: Yoshiko Uchida
Illustrated by: Joanna Yardley
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Emi's family has been told that all Japanese Americans must go to an internment camp; it's 1942, and America and Japan are at war. Emi doesn't think it's fair, and she doesn't want to leave her home, her school, and her best friend, Laurie. She doesn't want her mother to be even more unhappy, however, so she tries to hide her feelings. But on the first day at the camp, when Emi realizes she's lost the heart bracelet that Laurie gave her, all her feelings come spilling out: "How will I ever remember my best friend?" This poignant story uses one child's loss to show readers the injustice of the internment camps, but ends with a uplifting powerful message about resiliency and Emi's realization that those we love will always be with us in our hearts.

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Julianna Swaney
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

After Sara Josephine Baker lost her brother and father to typhoid fever, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. But when she graduated in 1898, few people wanted to see a woman doctor, so Dr. Jo took a job in public health working in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's poorest neighborhoods. She realized that, by improving the health of children, she could improve the health of a whole community. Dr. Jo assigned visiting nurses to new mothers, designed safe infant clothing, set up milk stations, and created training and licensing for midwives — and her work saved over 90,000 children. This picture book biography of a groundbreaking woman in medicine highlights how simple innovations can have an enormous impact.

Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind

Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind

Written by: Cynthia Grady
Illustrated by: Amiko Hirao
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

When San Diego children's librarian Clara Breed learned that her young Japanese-American patrons were being sent away by Executive Order 9066, she gave them books to take along and asked them to write to her to keep in touch. In this affecting picture book, author Cynthia Grady uses the children's own words to help tell the story of their three years of internment, as well as the story of Breed's efforts on their behalf: everything from sending books and art supplies to writing impassioned articles calling for justice. Grady doesn't shy away from the truth of the internment experience, but she also highlights the power of books — and librarians — to see people through the darkest times.

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941

Written by: Kirby Larson
Recommended Age: 9 and up

13-year-old Piper's father is the pastor at the Japanese Baptist Church, so she's always been close to the Japanese-American community. When Pearl Harbor is attacked, she worries about her brother, who was serving there, but also feels bound to defend her Japanese-American friends from her fellow students, who say they should be expelled. Then Piper's world is rocked again: her minister father announces that, if his congregation is going to be moved to the Minidoka War Relocation Camp in Idaho, his family will join them. In a series of diary entries, Piper wrestles with her resentment at being forced to move and her horror at the treatment of her fellow Americans. Absorbing and well-researched, this book provides a jumping off point for discussions of individual rights versus security.

Paper Wishes

Paper Wishes

Written by: Lois Sepahban
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

Manami's Japanese American family finds their lives turned upside down: it's 1942, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour means they're being sent to an internment camp. Worst of all, Yujiin, her and her grandfather's beloved dog, isn't allowed to come. When Manami decides to try to smuggle Yujiin with them, she gets caught — and she has to abandon him halfway between their old home and the camp. Grief- and guilt-stricken, she becomes mute. She tries to cling to the hope that Yujiin will find a way to them, but if Manami is going to find peace — and her voice — she'll have to find a way to say goodbye to everything her family had to leave behind. This heartrending novel about a dark period of American history will help young readers put a human face to the stories from their textbooks.

Dust of Eden

Dust of Eden

Written by: Mariko Nagai
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

Mina Masako Tagawa is 13, and unexpectedly finds herself wrestling with the question: what do you do when your home country treats you like an enemy? It's early 1942, and her family has been sent from the only home she's ever known in Seattle to an internment camp in Idaho. When she left, her best friend, Jamie, gave her one half of a broken heart friendship pendant; in letters to her friend, Mina struggles to reconcile what she recites every day in the Pledge of Allegiance with the hurt, anger, and fear her treatment provokes. This powerful novel in verse explores the deep contradictions of the internment and asks the question of how you build a life worth living in such painful times.

Weedflower

Weedflower

Written by: Cynthia Kadohata
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

Although Sumiko was used to being teased as the only Japanese girl in her class in California, she always had her family's beautiful flower farm to go home to. After Pearl Harbor, though, Japanese people, even those born in the US, are considered suspect. Sumiko's family is ordered to travel to an internment camp, and she finds herself in one of the country's hottest deserts, where nothing grows. She soon learns that they are as unwanted there as they were at home: the camp is on an Indian reservation. But when she meets a young Mohave boy, she wonders if friendship might be able to grow in the desert too.

Farewell to Manzanar

Farewell to Manzanar

Recommended Age: 12 and up

Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old when her family was moved to the Manzanar internment camp. There, she lived with with 10,000 other Japanese Americans, both recent immigrants and natural born citizens like her. She remembers the bizarre juxtaposition of barbed wire, spotlights, and armed guards with sock hops, baton twirling lessons, and a dance band that played hit songs — except for the current #1 on the charts, 'Don't Fence Me In.' This touching first-hand look at the internment experience raises questions about cultural pride versus assimilation; what cost a country is willing to pay for security; and how people can maintain their identities and their dignity under the force of prejudice and oppression.

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Written by: Susan M. Latta
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Virginia Apgar and her innovative score for assessing newborn health is just one of many little-known women who have helped drive the field of medicine! In this fascinating new title from the Women of Action series, readers will learn more about Apgar's groundbreaking career and pioneering work in neonatal health. They'll also learn about 20 more daring and trailblazing women from the past two hundred years of medicine, from the first women nurses and doctors to the women helping patients around the world today. They're sure to inspire a new generation to defy prejudices and expectations, create incredible new procedures, and devote their lives to healing.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Rachel Swaby's best-selling book about the women scientists who changed our world includes an excellent discussion of Virginia Apgar's life and work! This short biography includes plenty of details that capture Apgar's compassionate nature — like her habit of scooping up children and carrying them up the stairs if they seemed scared of the elevator. It also highlights her vibrant, busy life outside of the medical profession, as well as the witty and vivacious personality that made her a favorite medical expert to speak to the public about health issues. Teen and adult readers will love reading Swaby's version of Apgar's story, as well as the other 51 stories in this book.

Mother Layer Puzzle

Mother Layer Puzzle

Manufacturer: Hape
Recommended Age: 3 - 7

Kids with an interest in babies and prenatal care can start learning the ropes with this wooden layer puzzle from Hape! Each layer of this puzzle depicts a stage of pregnancy, from a tiny fetus to a newborn. By assembling the pieces, kids get to see how a baby develops within the uterus — as well as a basic idea of how the baby's growth affects the mother's shape — making it the perfect choice for soon-to-be new siblings or any child who thinks they might want to follow in Apgar's footsteps someday.

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