One of the Most Respected Figures
People who are taught by great teachers can gain wisdom that will lead their entire lives. Teachers are like a compass to show them the right way, and a lantern to light up the darkness. Who will be selected as the most influential and representative Korean teachers?
In a survey of 1,500 specialists in 30 different fields, including politics, the economy and society, the respondents listed Dr. Jang Gi-ryeo as the most respected figure in medical science. Eight hundred Korean medical specialists also cited Jang as the greatest doctor of all time in Korea. Why is he held in such high esteem by his peers?
Born in Yongcheon, North Pyongan Province in 1911, Jang Gi-ryeo attended Uiseong(의성) Elementary School, which had been founded by his father Jang Woon-seop(장운섭), who was a scholar of Chinese classics. He entered Gyeongseong(경성) Medical College, the predecessor of Seoul National University’s medical school, in 1928 and graduated at the top of his class in 1932.
Afterwards, Jang walked a smooth career path as he worked as a lecturer in the department of surgery at the college. But he refused to accept the coveted positions that would guarantee his successful career, such as a professorship at the college and a chief surgeon at the South Chungcheong Provincial Hospital. That was because he wanted to keep his own promise to devote his whole life to poor people who might die without a single chance to see a doctor. In fact, he made the decision even before he entered the college. He chose to move to a Christian hospital in Pyongyang in 1940.
Three years later, Jang attracted attention as a genius doctor who successfully removed a tumor from a liver cancer patient for the first time in Korea. In 1947, he began to work as the professor of the surgery department at Pyongyang Medical College and as the chief surgeon at the hospital affiliated with the college. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, however, he went to Busan to help out refugees in distress. He borrowed three tents from the U.S. army and opened a free medical clinic called ‘Gospel Hospital’ in Youngdo District in Busan in 1951. That was how he began to walk the path of a dedicated doctor who would always stand by poor patients.
‘Benevolent Art of Medicine’
For those who had to give up hope for surgical treatment due to a lack of money, Jang would pay for blood out of his own pocket to help them receive operations. To patients who couldn’t afford to pay for their medical bills, he would tell them the way to sneak out of the clinic through the backdoor. Also, he would buy patients underwear in winter. Jang was given various nicknames, such as Little Jesus, Korea’s Albert Schweitzer, the modern version of Heo Jun(허준) and ‘Dr. Jang, the fool.’
The compassionate doctor tried to heal the minds of poor patients with his profound love and reverence for human life. In 1959, when medical skills to deal with liver problems were not developed very much, Jang became the first Korean doctor to succeed in major liver resection to break new ground in the treatment of liver diseases.
In 1968, Jang established the Blue Cross Medical Cooperative, the nation’s first medical insurance union. With the payment of a mere 70 won, which was cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, the insurance system had the slogan of ‘Help each other when you are healthy, receive help when you are sick.’ In 1989, Korea became the 18th country in the world and second in Asia, following Japan, to introduce the National Health Insurance System. It has its roots in the Blue Cross Medical Cooperative.
With the establishment of the medical insurance union, Jang’s lifelong wish - to see that there won’t be any patients who cannot see a doctor just because they have little money - finally came true.
Life of Sharing, Honest Poverty in 49.5 sq m Rooftop House
In recognition of his various medical services, Jang received the Magsaysay Award in 1979 and the Award for Doctors Implementing Humanitarianism in 1995. After he died in 1995, he was posthumously given the Order of Civil Merit, Rose of Sharon Medal. He was also inducted into the Korea Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2005.
But unlike his professional life, his personal life was far from happy. He lived all alone until he died at the age of 86, missing his wife and five children whom he had left behind in North Korea during the Korean War. He didn’t have a house of his own throughout his life and lived in the hospital residence.
All he left behind in his rooftop house were a worn-out doctor’s gown, black eyeglasses and a picture of him and his wife. But his writing does reflect his passionate existence.
‘I’ve never forgotten my responsibility for poor patients since the day I became a doctor. My life will be a successful one if I continue to remember my decision, but my life would be a failure if I forget it.’
Jang set his lifelong goal as ‘non-possession and service’ and put it into practice all his life. As his penname ‘Sacred Mountain’ indicates, he led the life of a saint. He is a great teacher who awakens us to the meaning of true success.