Shu, Dr. Ruby Inouye (1920-2012)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 4/11/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10053

Dr. Ruby Inouye Shu was the first Japanese American woman physician in Seattle and an icon in the local Japanese community. Her general practice was in Seattle’s Nihonmachi or Japantown. She delivered more than 1,000 babies but also made home visits and attended Issei (first generation to America) patients in nursing homes. Aware of their cultural isolation, she became a staunch advocate of Japanese facilities for the elderly.

Early Life

Dr. Ruby, as she was affectionately known, was born in Seattle to Tsuyoshi (1887-1968) and Yayoi Inouye (1900-1989). Her father was born in Japan and migrated to Seattle in 1905, where he opened a restaurant, the State Café, located on 1st Avenue and Madison Street. Her mother was a picture bride (the bride and groom's parents arranged the marriage) and became the mother of six children. They lived at 1010 East Spruce just a few blocks from the Japanese Baptist Church. Ruby attended Pacific Grammar School and Broadway High School.

She enrolled at the University of Washington majoring in Home Economics but realized that in her heart she wanted to become a physician and do something for other people. Aware that this would be beyond the norm for a woman, much less a Japanese woman, she talked to her father about her unusual decision and he consented to her desire to change her major.

She was forced to drop out of the University of Washington in her junior year because of the relocation and internment of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast in 1942. She and her family spent from May to August that year at Camp Harmony in the Puyallup Fairgrounds. She spent from August to January at Minidoka, an internment camp in Idaho.

From Internment Back to College

In March 1942, one month after Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated Japanese Americans, a group of concerned educators worked to see that more than 2,500 Nisei college students were allowed to continue their education. Three of these educators included Lee Paul Sieg, president of the University of Washington, Robert Gordon Sproul, president of the University California at Berkeley, and Remsen Bird president of Occidental College.

Their first meeting was in Berkeley at the YMCA on March 21, 1942 and they opened a central office there to serve as a clearing house for groups working in the Pacific Northwest and in Northern and Southern California. After the federal government refused their request to exempt these students, they located colleges east of the West Coast exclusion zone to accept them.

Ruby Inouye was accepted at the University of Texas along with 24 other Japanese students. She went by train to Austin and seeing the signs colored and white, she was confused about what she was but decided to use the white accommodations. While at the university, she lived at the home of the librarian and his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. A. Moffit. She is grateful to Mrs. Moffit for including her in social activities in the home and strengthening her social skills. After three semesters, she graduated with honors and a B.A. degree. There was gratitude on the part of those Japanese students to the University of Texas for taking a chance on their loyalty to the United States and their determination to continue their education.

Becoming a Physician

She was accepted at the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia along with one other Japanese student from Tule Lake, Kazuko Uno. After receiving their M.D. degrees, they were the only two graduates not initially accepted at any hospital for their internships.

Dr. Ruby remembers going into a restroom and crying, thinking about the discrimination involved. The dean of the medical college was able to place her at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, where she worked from 1948 until 1949. She returned to Seattle and applied for a general practice residency at Providence Hospital and Harborview Hospital, but was denied.

Career in Seattle

It was then, in 1949, that she opened her office for the practice of general medicine on the second floor above Higo Variety Store located at 602-608 S Jackson Street in Seattle. She rented two rooms for $40 a month on the same floor with other Asian professionals. Her first patient was a young man with a minor injury but she recalls giving him a complete examination, so anxious was she to do a good job.

Many of her patients were Issei (first generation to America) women, some war brides who spoke no English. Because she had for many years walked from grade school and high school to the Japanese Language School on Weller, she was fairly proficient in the language. But it was these women to whom she is grateful for teaching her the Japanese words for organs of the body which she did not learn in medical school. Because she spoke Japanese, many of her patients who were men felt less intimidated by the fact that she was a woman. Because of her youth and diminutive size, the older women treated her like a daughter whom they could trust and often offered her candy. She enjoyed medical privileges at Seattle General Hospital, Providence Hospital, Swedish Hospital, Virginia Mason, and Maynard Hospital.

Marriage and Family

In 1951, she married Dr. Evan Shu (1920-2001), a young Chinese physician from Mainland China who arrived in the United States in 1946 to do further training in an Eye Ear Nose and Throat specialty at the College of Medical Evangelists in California. He had trouble obtaining a Washington State Medical License so Dr. Ruby left her practice and went with him to Spokane in order for him to receive further training. After one year there she returned to Seattle and her practice while he sought more training in Tacoma. In 1953 they began a joint practice in Seattle and later built a new clinic at 202 16th Avenue S.

Dr. Ruby was a mother, a housewife, and a physician. After giving birth to three children, she wore all hats gracefully. While at Providence Hospital a few hours after having given birth, she was called to see one of her patients there who was in labor. She got up and delivered the newest baby before returning to her own bed.

After a busy day at the clinic she would return home to prepare the evening meal for the family, sometimes without removing her hat and coat. Her children never had a feeling that she was not available and she was always a strong role model for them. They thought of her as a big personality in a little body. She taught them to be unafraid of the world and gave them a strong work ethic. Her three children now have successful careers: Evan Jr., an architect in Boston; Geraldine, a University of Washington scientist; and Karen, an Auburn school administrator.

Care of the Elderly

One of Dr. Ruby's concerns regarded the elderly Japanese she visited in nursing homes around the city. She found them to be culturally isolated. The language was different and the food was different. They spent most of their time in bed and were uncomplaining. What these Issei patients needed, she felt, was a place where they could be comfortable in their surroundings with other Japanese-speaking people and with traditional Japanese food. In 1972, she and her husband proposed just such a home for them. It was to be a 100-bed nursing home, but the state reduced the number of beds permitted under "certificate of need" and this made the proposal financially unfeasible.

Dr. Ruby was not alone regarding treatment of the elderly Japanese in nursing homes. Tosh Okamoto, Tomio Moriguchi, and Rev. Kenneth Miyake were equally concerned. An Issei Concerns Committee was formed and the Shus joined the newly formed committee, which first met on November 29, 1972. Four years later, on September 19, 1976, Seattle Keiro, a nursing facility located in the old and refurbished Mount Baker Convalescent Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was opened. In 1980, the Issei Concerns Board voted to change the corporations name to Nikkei Concerns. The organization was committed now to including all generations of Japanese descendants.

By 1987, a new Seattle Keiro was opened on E Yesler Avenue with 150 beds and built on some of  the property owned by the Shus. In 1988, Dr. Ruby became the first female president of Nikkei Concerns and exerted a strong influence in fundraising. The Shus' clinic at 202 16th S was donated to the organization after the Dr. Ruby and her husband retired.

Retirement on the Lake

Dr. Ruby retired from the practice of medicine in 1995 at age 75. She lived gracefully on the southern shore of Lake Washington with a 180 degree view from her kitchen window, and spent her time reading, working crossword puzzles, and making quilts for Nikkei Concerns auctions and for her family. In the past, her rice cloth aprons were big sellers at auctions, but because rice is no longer shipped in cloth bags the aprons became cherished items.

Dr. Ruby Shu died in September 2012. Tiny, modest, and soft spoken, she was an enormous force in the Japanese community.


Sources: Mary T. Henry interview with Geraldine Shu, February 19, 2012, March 6, 2012; Author interview with Dr. Ruby Shu, March 3, 2012;  Oral History of Dr. Ruby Inouye Shu, interviewed by Ken Mochizuki, February 21, 2011, in Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle; Video of Dr. Ruby Inouye Shu (http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=3171105); Take 21, Seattle Channel news and views, September 2011; Patty Murphy, "Memories of Minidoka: Japanese Americans Revisit Southern Idaho," Boise Weekly, May 5, 2010; "The Stolen Years:  Part Two," Columns, University of Washington Alumni Magazine, March 2006; "Grateful and Giving," Texas Alcalde, University of Texas Alumni Magazine, September-October 1993, p. 61;  "Years of Caring; the story of Nikkei Concerns" 2010  Nikkei Concerns, 1601 E  Yesler Way, Seattle, Washington; Gary Y. Okihiro, Storied Lives; Japanese American Students and World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 30.
Note: This essay was updated on October 3, 2012.

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