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NIH's Senior Scientist Has No Plans To Retire

By Susan Marsiglia

On the Front Page...

Dr. Ichiji Tasaki is a busy man. He begins his day with a 2-mile walk from his home in Bethesda to his lab at NICHD. He works 7 days a week, publishing an average of two scientific articles a year in respected peer-reviewed journals. Such a fast pace would be impressive for anyone. It is especially so for NIH's most senior scientist. At 91 years old, Tasaki has been conducting ground-breaking research for twice as long as some of his colleagues have been alive.


Born in Japan in 1910, he attended medical school at the urging of his mother and received his M.D. in 1938. However, instead of practicing medicine, he decided to pursue his first love: biophysics. While in Japan, he studied vertebrate nerve fibers and discovered the insulating function of the myelin sheath, a material that speeds the conduction of nerve impulses. He also was the first to show that electrical impulses traveling along myelinated nerve cells actually "jump" between the breaks in the myelin wrapping, called nodes of Ranvier. His description of this process, termed saltatory conduction, is prominent in every biology textbook. The discoveries also provided the foundation for a better understanding of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, in which myelin is lost or damaged.

Dr. Ichiji Tasaki and his wife Nobuko

After World War II, Tasaki's research took him to England and to Switzerland, where he further studied the properties of nerve fibers. In 1951, he came to the United States to work at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, Tasaki and his colleagues demonstrated how vibrations that occur in the cochlea in response to sound are translated into electrical signals that the brain can interpret. This effort led to the development of the field of audiology, indirectly providing the basis for diagnosing and treating many hearing disorders.

Tasaki began his NIH career in 1953, at NINDS, then called the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Blindness. Later, when NIMH separated from that institute, he moved with the new institute, where he was a lab chief for 22 years. He is currently on detail to NICHD. Since coming to NIH, Tasaki has been studying the physical and chemical processes that occur in nerve membranes.

According to Dr. Peter Basser, one of Tasaki's colleagues at NICHD's Laboratory of Integrative and Medical Biophysics, Tasaki is "one of the great neurophysiologists of the past century — and of this century too." He is also fiercely committed to research, building his own lab instruments for use in his experiments and working tirelessly in his quest to understand how nerves work. In fact, when his NICHD lab was recently renovated, he not only switched his place of work, but switched his focus as well. He halted his lab work and moved to a nearby office to investigate the mathematical theory behind his findings.

Tasaki's wife, Nobuko, realized early in their relationship that if she ever wanted to see her husband, she was going to have to work with him. For the past 60 years, she has acted as his lab assistant and partner, working with him in the NICHD lab 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Tasaki jokingly calls her his "supervisor." The couple has two sons: the oldest is a retired physics professor living in Tsukaba, Japan, and the youngest is an engineer who works at NASA. Although he occasionally hits the golf course in order to unwind, Tasaki does not see retirement in his immediate future. His dedication appears to run in the family. His mother, a music teacher and calligrapher in Japan, lived until the age of 108 and was active until the last days of her life. When asked how long he intends to work, Tasaki said, "I will continue to work until my wife says she cannot work. If she can work until she is 100 years old, then I will keep working too."

When asked how long he intends to work, Tasaki said "I will continue to work until my wife says she cannot work. If she can work until she is 100 years old, then I will keep working too."

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