Kim Jeom-dong, the First Female Medical Doctor in Korea

2012-06-21

Paving the Way for Women

Today, it is natural to see a doctor when we are sick, like when we catch a cold. Until 100 years ago, however, when Western medicine was first introduced to Korea, Western doctors were considered scary people who wielded injection needles and knives.

For women, the situation was even worse. Women patients could hardly let male doctors feel their pulse for diagnosis, and they would never show the ailing parts of their body due to a strict separation of the sexes fixed in Confucian orthodoxy. When women fell sick, they would simply perform shamanic exorcism several times, only to die.

In those days, there was a medical doctor who was devoted to women patients. Her name was Kim Jeom-dong, the first female practitioner of Western medicine in Korea.

Ewha Student Kim Jeom-dong Dreams of Becoming a Doctor

Born in 1879 in Jeong-dong, Seoul, Kim Jeom-dong entered Ewha School, the first modern educational institution for Korean women, in November 1886.

She was the youngest of four daughters in a poor family. But she became the fourth student at the school, thanks to her father who had been exposed to Western ideas earlier while working for American missionary Henry Gerhard Appenzeller. In school, she quickly mastered various subjects, including the Korean language, arithmetic, the Bible and Chinese classics.

Kim was particularly good at English. Her outstanding language skills led to an encounter with Rosetta Sherwood Hall, an American doctor who came to Korea for medical service missions. Mary Fletcher Benton Scranton, then-principal of Ewha School, introduced Kim to Hall as an interpreter so Hall could better communicate with Korean people while engaging in medical activities. That was how Kim was first exposed to Western medicine. At first, she wasn’t interested in medical work very much and only carried out her duties faithfully as an interpreter. But her life completely changed after she witnessed Hall performing an operation on a patient with a harelip successfully, leaving no scars at all.

At the time, harelip was known as an incurable disease. But the surgery changed the life of a girl who would otherwise live uncomfortably for her entire lifetime. Deeply impressed, Kim made up her mind to learn medicine and help people suffering from diseases.

From Kim Jeom-dong to Esther Park

Hall welcomed Kim’s decision. She helped her study medicine and also introduced a man to her. He was Park Yu-san, a Korean man who helped Hall’s husband with his missionary work and medical activities. The missionary couple arranged a marriage between Kim and Park, and they held Korea’s first Western-style wedding ceremony in a church in 1893.

From then on, Kim began to call herself Esther Park, after her Christian name and her husband’s surname. The following year, Esther and her husband left for the U.S. to study, following Rosetta Sherwood Hall who was returning home after her husband died. Esther stood out in high school in the U.S. and became the youngest student to enter Baltimore Women’s Medical College.

Her husband, who recognized her talent and hoped that she would become a doctor, supported her while working at a farm in New York. Unfortunately, he did not survive to see his wife become a doctor, as he died of tuberculosis in the U.S., six months before Esther graduated from college.

Fighting God, Fighting Diseases

Esther earned her M.D. in June 1900, becoming the first Korean woman to receive a degree in Western medicine. Remembering her husband’s last wish that she should become a doctor, she returned to Korea and began to work at Bogu Yeogwan(보구 여관), Korea’s first hospital for women, located near Dongdaemun. The hospital was named by King Gojong. For the first ten months, she took care of some 3,000 patients.

Female doctor Esther Park was the only hope for women patients who couldn’t get proper treatment, as they weren’t allowed to show their bodies to male doctors. She went everywhere in the country, as long as there were women patients waiting for her. She moved to Pyongyang in 1901 when Rosetta Sherwood Hall came back to Korea and established a hospital there. Esther traveled across Hwanghae and Pyongan Provinces to offer free medical services to women who couldn’t benefit from medical care. In recognition of her service, King Gojong presented a silver medal to her.

While she was enthusiastic about her medical volunteer work, one thing was missing in her life. She was so busy looking after patients that she didn’t take care of herself very well. She died of tuberculosis, just like her husband, in 1910 at the age of 33.

Esther Park was like a ray of sunshine in those days when there wasn’t any female medical staff whatsoever. At the time, it was hard for women even to attend school. But Esther went to the U.S. to study and after returning home, she devoted her life to medical services and social work. It would be fair to say she is called the female Schweitzer of Korea. Her spirit and achievements were reevaluated by the later generations, and she was inscribed at the Korea Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2006.

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