My Schooling: Ritsuko Komaki, professor at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center

Inspired by Sadako’s death to do research

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Ritsuko Komaki, 70, professor at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, conducted by Mayumi Nagasato, staff writer.

The death [in 1955 at the age of 12] of Sadako Sasaki, who was a classmate of mine at Nobori-cho Elementary School, set me on the path to becoming a radiologist. I wondered why an innocent child had to lose her life and why some people who were exposed to radiation got leukemia and died while others survived. That’s how it all started.

When I was in the fourth grade, we moved from Kudamatsu [Yamaguchi Prefecture] to Hiroshima on account of my father’s job. Sadako and I were in different classes. She was a fast runner and full of energy. I once lost to her in a relay race in the school athletic meet. When Sadako was hospitalized for leukemia, a friend and I went to visit her. I still recall her intently folding paper cranes.

When I heard that she had died, I was very sad. I didn’t want my friend’s death to be in vain. That’s when I decided I wanted to do research into leukemia or become a doctor.

As president of the student council at Nobori-cho Junior High School, I was involved in erecting the Children’s Peace Monument, which was modeled after Sadako. I led the drive to collect donations on the street. The monument was erected in the hope that no more children would suffer the harmful effects of radiation. At the time, I never thought the monument would become world-famous or become a symbol of peace. I’m very moved when I see groups of children on school trips singing in front of it.

I studied medicine at Hiroshima University, and during summer vacations I helped with regular checkups given to A-bomb survivors by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) (now the Radiation Effects Research Foundation). After I graduated I went to work for the ABCC. It was right in the midst of the student unrest, so I couldn’t stay in college and continue my research. I was determined to learn more about radiation, so a year later, with the help of the ABCC, I went to work at a hospital in Wisconsin in the United States. That’s where I learned that radiation was effective in treating cancer.

In 1988 I went to work for the MD Anderson Cancer Center and devoted myself to research into destroying cancer cells without operating by using radiation. Now I’m doing research into proton therapy, which has fewer side effects. I put an art object shaped like a paper crane in the lobby of the Anderson Center. So even though I’m far away, I never forget about Hiroshima.

Many people have lost their lives to radiation, but it can also be used to save lives. Until the very end, Sadako hoped to recover. My dream is to continue to save the lives of children who are battling disease as Sadako did.

Ritsuko Komaki
Native of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Graduated from the Hiroshima University Faculty of Medicine in 1969. After working for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (now the Radiation Effects Research Foundation), went to the United States in 1970 to specialize in leukemia. Did a residency in Radiation Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and worked there as a radiologist. Has also served on the faculty of Columbia University. Assumed her current post in 1998.

(Originally published on March 24, 2014)