Harlem’s Jokichi Takamine, First Biotech Engineer, Adrenaline And Nippon Club Founder

Jōkichi Takamine (高峰 譲吉 Takamine Jōkichi, November 3, 1854 – July 22, 1922) was a Japanese chemist. Takamine was born in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, in November 1854. His father was a doctor; his mother a member of a family of sake brewers. He spent his childhood in Kanazawa, capital of present-day Ishikawa Prefecture in central Honshū, and was educated in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, graduating from the Tokyo Imperial University in 1879. He did postgraduate work at University of Glasgowand Anderson College in Scotland. He returned to Japan in 1883 and joined the division of chemistry at the newly established Department of Agriculture and Commerce. He learned English as a child from a Dutch family in Nagasaki and so always spoke English with a Dutch accent.

Equire reports that of course, real magic was taking place back at Mount Sinai. Later in “The Best with the Best to Get the Best,” Chickering begins tests on a newly discovered hormone. “This Japanese fellow on 103rd Street?” Bertie reveals. “He’s the one that called it ‘adrenalin.'”

Takamine was an enigmatic figure, immigrating to the United States in 1884 to study fertilizer. His technique for discovering adrenalin was actually borrowed from processes used to make sake.

He had become the most famous Asian man in America. Newspapers proclaimed him the “Japanese Thomas Edison.”

Takamine’s greatest discovery was almost immediately abused as a performance enhancing drug in sports, as tragically illustrated in this episode with the fate of poor Otto, the hapless wrestler with big biceps and an armful of injected adrenalin.

Takamine continued to work for the department of agriculture and commerce until 1887. He then founded the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, where he later isolated the enzyme takadiastase, an enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of starch. Takamine developed his diastase from koji, a fungus used in the manufacture of soy sauce and miso. Its Latin name is Aspergillus oryzae, and it is a “designated national fungus” (kokkin) in Japan.

In 1899, Takamine was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Engineering by what is now the University of Tokyo.

He established his own research laboratory at East 103rd Street in Harlem, New York, but licensed the exclusive production rights for Takadiastase to one of the largest US pharmaceutical companies, Parke Davis. This turned out to be a shrewd move – he became a millionaire in a relatively short time and by the early 20th century was estimated to be worth $30 million.

In 1901 he isolated and purified the hormone adrenaline (the first effective bronchodilator for asthma) from animal glands, becoming the first to accomplish this for a glandular hormone. In 1894, Takamine applied for, and was granted, a patent titled “Process of Making Diastatic Enzyme” (U.S. Patent 525,823)—the first patent on a microbial enzyme in the United States.

In 1905 he founded the Nippon Club, which was for many years located at 161 West 93rd Street in Manhattan.

In 1909, he and his wife moved to 334 at Riverside Drive between 105-106th Streets on the Upper West Side in Harlem, NY. NY Times reports that the couple spent a fortune remodeling the interior of the home according to Japanese fashion. Decor included panels depicting festivals, carved teak furniture, a huge handmade bronze table lamp, inlaid dining table and gilded grillwork on the walls. He also provided the cherry trees in Sakura Park near Grants Tomb. Also, he had an office at 613 West 142nd Street in Harlem, NY.

Many of the beautiful cherry blossom trees in the West Potomac Park surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC were donated by the mayor of Tokyo (Yukio Ozaki) and Jokichi Takamine in 1912.

In 1904, the Emperor Meiji of Japan honored Takamine with an unusual gift. In the context of the St. Louis World Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition), the Japanese government had replicated a historical Japanese structure, the “Pine and Maple Palace” (Shofu-den), modelled after the Kyoto Imperial Coronation Palace of 1,300 years ago. This structure was given to Dr. Takamine in grateful recognition of his efforts to further friendly relations between Japan and the United States. He had the structure transported in sections from Missouri to his summer home in upstate New York, seventy-five miles north of New York City. In 1909, the structure served as a guest house for Prince Kuni Kuniyoshi and Princess Kuni of Japan, who were visiting the area. Although the property was sold in 1922, the reconstructed structure remained in its serene setting. In 2008, it still continues to be one of the undervalued tourist attractions of New York’s Sullivan County.

The Takamine home in Kanazawa can still be seen today. It was relocated to near the grounds of Kanazawa Castle in 2001.

Two films about the life of Takamine have been made. In the 2010 film Sakura, Sakura (ja) directed by Toru Ichikawa (ja), Takamine was portrayed by Masaya Kato. A sequel titled Takamine, also directed by Ichikawa and starring Hatsunori Hasegawa, was released in 2011.


Photo credit: 1) Jokichi Takamine via source. 2) Dr. Jokichi Takamine Dinner to Visiting Japanese Bankers 1906, MCNY.

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