In the late Edo Period (1603-1867), a physician in the Koshu region (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture) tried to educate the public on protecting themselves against an infectious disease.

Hashimoto Hakuju advised against activities such as eating out, going to see a play, taking lessons and exchanging gifts when infections were spreading. He also said old items of clothing should be soaked overnight before washing.

In essence, Hashimoto preached what we are being told today amid the novel coronavirus pandemic: Avoid the “three C’s” (closed, crowded and close-contact settings), refrain from outings and observe social distancing.

A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, Hashimoto studied in Nagasaki under a scholar of Western learning and read up on domestic and foreign medical and historical documents on how infectious diseases spread in China and Japan.

Hashimoto deduced that smallpox and measles were caused essentially by person-to-person transmission, and explained that the “seiki” energy inherent in the human body fights an infectious disease, or the “dokuke” external toxicity.

He also maintained that since people who were infected once would not be re-infected, they should be appointed as nursing personnel.

Masakazu Yoshioka, 71, a physician in Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture, reviewed “Dandoku-ron” (Theory of detoxication), Hashimoto’s long-forgotten seminal work, and published a critical biography of Hashimoto last spring.

“It is amazing that Hashimoto developed his own theory on subjects that would be later studied as immunity and disease resistance at a time when nothing was known about viruses and vaccines,” noted Yoshioka.

Truly far-sighted as Hashimoto was, there is no indication that he received the accolades he deserved during his lifetime.

Naming outlying islands and frontier regions that had remained untouched by smallpox outbreaks, Hashimoto pleaded in vain with authorities to establish quarantine shelters.

He died in 1822.

In light of modern medical knowledge, many of his arguments were wrong. For instance, he said smallpox could not be prevented by vaccination.

Still, his insight into measures to protect against infections is perfectly on the money during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

With COVID-19 cases inexorably tracing an upward curve every day ahead of winter, the arrival of a third wave is all too obvious.

“Avoidance saves us from infection, non-avoidance gets us infected,” Hashimoto declared with total conviction.

We need to take to heart this lesson from an epidemiologist who was far ahead of his time.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.