Megumi Shinoda: First Asian American Female Graduate
By Jingwen Zhang’23
Megumi Shinoda (1908-2007) in 1933 was the first Asian-American woman to graduate from what is now the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and one of the two first Asian American women in the United States to receive an MD degree.
Dr. Shinoda was born in Cleveland while her father, Minosuke Yamaguchi, was finishing medical school at what is now Case Western Reserve University. Her family relocated to New York City, creating what a local journalist called a “Japanese colony” in Inwood, similar to other ethnic enclaves that formed throughout the city.
She attended Barnard College and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors before applying to VP&S in 1929. She was initially notified that she “complied with the requirements for admission to our first-year class,” but “the quota for women has been chosen,” landing her on the waitlist. A month later, she was admitted from the waitlist and began her medical education that fall. She completed her subinternship at the Jersey City Hospital and received Alpha Omega Alpha honors. At the time of her graduation, she noted in a letter to a professor, “I wish I could tell you just how much P&S has come to mean to me. I have enjoyed my four years there tremendously.”
She applied for a residency at the Los Angeles County General Hospital and became the first Japanese-American intern there. She married Joseph Shinoda and their first child was born in 1936. Upon finishing her training, Dr. Shinoda ran an OB/GYN-focused general practice in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and “probably delivered half of the Japanese American babies in Los Angeles,” noted her obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
Her medical career was interrupted by World War II and the resulting anti-Japanese sentiment, which culminated in the unprecedented and widespread internment of Americans of Japanese descent. She returned to New York and did not have to go to the camps, though several of her relatives were less fortunate. Her father, as an East Coast-based “sponsor,” was able to help some family members leave the camps and attend school elsewhere in the country. In 1943, Dr. Shinoda asked her professors at VP&S for assistance and recommendations in securing positions in Colorado and Utah. “[I] would undoubtedly be still in general practice were it not for the war and the unfortunate fact of my Japanese ancestry,” she wrote, “which along with all other people of my race uprooted me from a pleasant existence on the west coast.” She also wrote about possibly pivoting to psychiatry, as she was a mother of two and wanted to spend more time with her children than she would if she continued primarily practicing OB/GYN.
After the war, Dr. Shinoda was able to move back to Los Angeles, where she resumed her general medical practice in 1946. The practice soon thrived once more, and she also ran a popular health advice column in a newspaper for the Japanese American community. For her contributions to the community, she was given a spot on the “walk of fame” on First Street in Little Tokyo, where her medical bag was inscribed in the cement.
Eventually, Dr. Shinoda revisited the idea of practicing psychiatry and ran a successful psychiatric practice in Hollywood until she retired at age 88.
This was excerpted from a post written by Jingwen Zhang’23 that appeared in Primary Sources, the blog of Archives & Special Collections in the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library. Dr. Zhang used the resources of Archives & Special Collections and these other sources: My Inwood website, Dr. Shinoda’s obituary, encyclopedia.com, the National Archives, the transcript of an interview with Dr. Shinoda’s niece, the Topaz Stories website, and the Pacific Citizen newspaper.