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VI.9 - Diseases of the Modern Period in Korea

from Part VI - The History of Human Disease in Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2008

Kenneth F. Kiple
Bowling Green State University, Ohio
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Medical Missionaries

Except for the addition of cholera, the diseases of Korea of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century differed little from the ones prevailing in earlier times. In fact, Westerners who came to Korea in the 1880s and 1890s thought that the illnesses found in Korea were generally the same as those in North America. George W. Woods, for example, a surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Juniata of America’s Asiatic Squadron, reported that he knew of no diseases peculiar to Korea, but he was struck by the almost universal presence of smallpox and malaria. Woods, who spent almost 3 months of 1884 in Korea, was one of the first Americans to visit the peninsula (Bohm and Swartout, Jr. 1984).

Medical missionaries, upon whose observations we rely for much of this essay, tended to believe that Korean medical knowledge was entirely borrowed from China and that the history of real medical work in Korea began in September 1884, when Horace N. Allen of the Presbyterian Mission came to Seoul. Medical missionaries soon realized that foreign doctors could best establish a claim to medical superiority through surgery. Among the operations Allen performed were excision of the ankle, knee, shoulder, and wrist; amputation of fingers, arms, legs, cancers, and tumors; dissection of scrofulous glands; enucleation of the eyeball; treatment of cataract and pterygium; and closure of harelip. One of the most frequently performed minor surgical operations was for fistula. One Western physician, Oliver R. Avison, blamed this apparently common condition on the Korean custom of sitting on the floor instead of on chairs (Avison 1897).

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1993

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