In June of 1994, an apocalyptic cult known as Aleph released a cloud of lethal sarin gas outside of Matsumoto, Japan, killing seven people and seriously injuring hundreds more.
At the time of the attacks, Japanese police had never studied the nerve gas; in fact, no one in Japan had ever seriously researched the toxin.
“At that time, Japanese never heard about sarin,” said Anthony Tu, now a professor emeritus at CSU. In November, Tu was bestowed with the Order of the Rising Sun — the first national decoration awarded by the Japanese government starting in the late 1800s — by the emperor of Japan for his contributions to the investigation of the attacks.
“This is indicative of the impact our professors are having around the globe,” interim Provost Rick Miranda said in a press release. Miranda praised the retired professor for his contributions to both academic and practical science.
Just more than five feet tall with salt-and-pepper hair, the 79-year-old Tu hardly looks the part of a detective. Rather, Tu lives in an academic world that is nonetheless filled with poisons.
Raised in Taiwan, Tu came to the United States 55 years ago to study chemistry. Since obtaining his master’s degree from Notre Dame, Tu has focused almost exclusively on snake venom, specifically from rattlesnakes and sea snakes.
When the Japanese magazine Chemistry Today contacted Tu after the attacks, asking him to write an article about sarin gas, however, he did not turn them away.
Though Tu had never focused on chemical warfare, he had obtained an understanding of the gas by teaching a toxicology course at CSU.
“I always feel that teaching is the best way to learn,” he said.
In Tu’s article, he reported that sarin gas can be detected in soil, where the volatile chemical degrades into simpler, more stable compounds.
Using information from the article, as well as a detailed outline of the testing procedure provided by Tu, Japanese police discovered and seized the cult’s processing plant, where tons of the gas had been produced.
After the raid, police arrested cult leader Shoko Asahara. Asahara was charged with both the Matsumoto attacks and the much larger Tokyo subway gas attacks in 1995, which killed 12 commuters and injured thousands more. Asahara was sentenced to death for his crimes in 2004 and is currently awaiting execution.
Though retired, Tu continues to work in his office in CSU’s Microbiology Building.
The walls of his office are covered from top to bottom with book shelves stacked with books on venoms and other toxins. The shelves also hold copies of his own books and articles, which he continues to write in Chinese, Japanese and English.
Tu has been a fixture at the university since 1967 and has attracted more than $5 million in research grants, nearly all of them for his work on snake venom.
Norm Curthoys, his friend and colleague, described Tu not only as a devotee of venoms and gasses but as a piano player and a genealogy buff.
While Tu has written a book on his family history as well as a biography, his focus was always on his research.
“He was an extremely well-recognized scientist,” Curthoys, a biochemistry professor, said.
Tu now tours the world giving lectures on topics ranging from chemical warfare to crisis management.
While he continues to actively write and teach, Tu said that his work in Japan and on chemical warfare has taken hold of his reputation, overtaking his years academic research on the more organic toxins of snakes.
“People think I am the sarin man,” he said, “But that is only a really, really, tiny portion of my life.”
Senior Reporter Matt Minich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.