Ji Seok-yeong, a pioneer of modern Korean medicine

2011-05-12

Infectious Disease Rampant in Joseon

Smallpox was a deadly infectious disease in the 19th century Joseon, leaving almost nine out of ten infected persons dead. But Dr. Edward Jenner’s smallpox inoculation had already started eradicating the disease from the late 18th century. The Joseon government issued a recommendation that the country also adopt Dr. Jenner’s vaccination program and appointed Ji Seok-yeong, who was already familiar with the treatment, to head a smallpox vaccination agency. So, who is Ji Seok-yeong and how was he able to introduce this western inoculation method to Joseon?

Starting in Oriental Medicine

Ji was born on May 15th, 1855 to a noble yet financially strapped family. He started studying Oriental medicine at an early age supported by his father, who was quite knowledgeable in medicine although his aristocratic lineage barred him from running a medical clinic. Very friendly with middle-class doctors of the time, Ji’s father sent his smart and inquisitive son to study Chinese medicine under then-esteemed physician Park Young-sun. But in the 19th century western studies were just making into the country and Ji was soon introduced to western medicine.

Smallpox and Ji Seok-yeong

Ji’s mentor Park learned of the smallpox vaccination method from a Japanese doctor when he was visiting Japan in 1876 as a part of a government delegation. He brought back a book on smallpox inoculation and taught his students about the new and effective treatment for smallpox. The innovative treatment had helped broaden the world of medicine for Ji and offered him a way to eradicate one of the most fatal diseases.

But one can learn only so much from a book, and Ji wanted more. He found out that a Japanese naval clinic in Busan was administering smallpox shots to Japanese residents and walked 20 days down to the port city to ask the clinic to teach him about the vaccination. Impressed by Ji’s commitment and passion, the Japanese naval doctor trained him for two months.

In 1879, Ji became the country’s first native physician to vaccinate against smallpox, when he Ji administered his first smallpox shot to a two-year-old brother-in-law. It was a great success, but the problem was the shortage of vaccines. He was not able to learn how to manufacture the vaccine. So he traveled to Japan in 1880 with diplomatic envoys and learned how to manufacture the smallpox vaccine. Upon his return to Joseon, he set up a vaccine production base in Seoul and launched a nationwide vaccination program.



Paving the Way for Western Medicine

During the 1882 military mutiny, the conservative political sect destroyed Ji’s clinic for having too close a tie to Japan. He had to go into hiding for a while, but was soon asked to set up smallpox vaccination clinics in Jeonju and Gongju. He even went on to serve in the government in 1883 and encouraged smallpox vaccination, and became the inaugural president of Joseon’s first public medical school in 1899.

Ji had many other interests, one of which was Hangeul. He pushed for the easy-to-read horizontal writing of Hangeul, instead of the conventional vertical method. He also served in many political and social organizations. But he ended his public career when Japan annexed Korea, and died in 1935 at the age of 81. His inaction during the Japanese occupation and absence from resistant movements attracted criticism, but his dedication to save people from smallpox alone deserves our sincere admiration and gratitude.

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