Dr. Sakaye Shigekawa, a pioneering Nisei physician who persevered through sexism and prejudice to build a successful medical career, passed away on Oct. 18 in Los Angeles. She was 100.
Shigekawa estimated that she had delivered more than 20,000 babies during her career, which began in the 1940s.
Shigekawa was born a twin to Issei parents in South Pasadena on Jan. 6, 1913. She was inspired to go into medicine after her father was hospitalized for six months at Good Samaritan Hospital after coming down with double pneumonia, which developed into emphysema.
“I got acquainted with all the nurses, and the doctor was very kind,” Shigekawa said in an interview for the 2004 book “Silent Scars of Healing Hands.” “I thought, I’d like to [do] what he is doing for my father, so that was the beginning of my wanting to study medicine.”
Shigekawa was one of only four women admitted in the 1930s to the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. She began her residency in obstetrics at L.A. County General Hospital in 1941. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, she was dismissed from the hospital and was incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center, where she was one of seven doctors who helped to care for 17,000 detainees.
She left Santa Anita to complete her residency in Chicago at Walter Memorial Hospital. When the hospital cut her salary in half, Shigekawa joined a female physician and developed a large practice in a Polish and Italian neighborhood. In 1948, Shigekawa returned to Los Angeles, where she initially practiced at Japanese Hospital. She became one of the first minority physicians accepted at Queen of Angels Hospital, and in 1977 was the first woman elected president of the hospital’s medical staff.
Through her decades-long career, Shigekawa noted that she never lost a mother and continued to practice well into her 80s. She was also active in the community as a member of the Japanese American Medical Association and serving as president of Japanese Community Health Inc., (JCHI). She was also a supporter of the Japanese American National Museum and USC. She could often be seen at gatherings wearing one of her many fashionable and colorful hats.
Her niece, Janet Shigekawa Nakamaru, said it was her patients that loved Shigekawa the most.
“I spoke to an elderly friend of her who had the greatest complement I have ever heard from anyone. She said that my aunt, affectionately called ‘Shiggy,’ taught her how to be happy,” said Nakamaru.
At her request, there will be no funeral.