An interview with Dr. Augustus “Gus” Tanaka

This post comes from Zoë Maughan, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re reaching into the archives and publishing a few oral histories that we have not been able to make public before. The second interview in this series is a 2001 interview with Augustus M. Tanaka, M.D., known as Gus.

In this interview, conducted by Jim Kronenberg, Dr. Tanaka shares his experiences as a Japanese American physician and World War II veteran. He describes his experiences growing up in Portland, pursuing his undergraduate and medical degrees in the midst of World War II, and establishing a medical practice with his father in rural Ontario, OR. Dr. Tanaka discusses rural medicine and the medical innovations he observed throughout his career, from advances in anesthesiology to laparoscopy. Throughout the interview, he reflects on the rapidly-evolving nature of medicine and the necessity of combatting increasingly depersonalized care by contributing to one’s community.

Born and raised in Portland, Dr. Tanaka was a freshman at Reed College when Pearl Harbor took place. He describes the events that followed the attack: his father, deemed a prominent member of the Japanese community, was taken by the FBI and the administration at Reed helped Gus to arrange a transfer to Haverford College, a Quaker institution, in Pennsylvania. Shortly after his transfer in 1942, the internment of Japanese Americans was ordered and Dr. Tanaka was sent to an internment camp in North Portland. From there, he was sent to Minidoka Relocation Center in central Idaho, where he was able to transfer out to go back to Haverford College.

Upon receiving his transfer out of the internment camp to Haverford, Dr. Tanaka was drafted into the Army. After completing basic training, Dr. Tanaka was sent to the University of Minnesota to participate in a specialized training program which focused on learning about the language, history, and politics of Japan. He was the only person in the program who was born to Japanese immigrants in the U.S. Dr. Tanaka was sent to Japan and taught English to American G.I.s who had not completed elementary school, as well as served “more or less like a propagandist for the American Army.” He describes how morale was very low in Japan and his job involved explaining, “why we had to fight the war, why we had to win the war, and having won the war, why we had to stay in Japan to preserve the peace.”

After he was discharged from the Army, Dr. Tanaka graduated from Haverford and was accepted to medical school at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. He notes that his two years of service in the Army and the introduction of the G.I. Bill of Rights financed his medical school education. Upon graduation, he took an internship in surgery at King’s County Hospital. At the end of his surgical residency at King’s County Hospital, he made the decision to relocate to Ontario, OR with his family.

In 1958, Dr. Tanaka and his family made the move to Ontario. There, he joined his father, a graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School, in establishing the Tanaka Clinic. Dr. Tanaka details his experiences with rural medicine, the growth of the Ontario medical system, and the changes in medical practice that he observed over his career. In discussing his success as a rural physician, he says,

I was trained by a man who did everything possible to keep physicians from becoming pure technicians within their field. He wanted us to never give up the fact that we were physicians first, surgeons second. And that approach to medical care I think helped me handle the multiplicity of problems that we saw from time to time.

He also details his father’s influence on his sense of direction and purpose in life, noting how he kept telling him, “It isn’t enough that you work hard and pay your taxes. You have to serve your community also.”

An active member of the community, Dr. Tanaka served as the President of the Oregon Medical Association from 1971 to 1972. Additionally, he served on the Board of Medical Examiners and the Oregon Medical Professional Review Organization. He notes both medical charges and public welfare as critical issues that encouraged him to become more involved.

Dr. Tanaka talks about the many medical innovations he witnessed up until his retirement in 1993, from advances in pharmacy to anesthesiology to laparoscopic surgery and microsurgery. He talks about his experience learning laparoscopic surgical techniques later in his career and the accomplishment he felt mastering the new skill. He notes how with these advances in technology came a depersonalization in care and an increase in cost.

Reflecting on his career, Dr. Tanaka highlights the importance of viewing oneself as a physician first, surgeon second. He describes the duty physicians have to serve their communities, noting that while his specialty was in surgery, living in a rural area meant it was necessary for him to have a general practice. In conclusion, he says, “It’s been a great life for me. I found a great deal of satisfaction in being a physician and serving my community and serving medicine.”

This interview is part of the History of Medicine in Oregon project, which was supported in part by the Oregon Medical Education Foundation and coordinated by the Oregon Medical Association.

Read the interview

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