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Korean Traditional medicine

The History of Medicine on the Korean Peninsula

The history of Korean medicine and its early innovations can be traced back as far as 3000 B.C. to stone and bone needles unearthed in North Hamgyung Province, in what is now North Korea. In fact, the oldest known piece of Chinese medical literature, the Hwangtui Suowon, which dates to 50 B.C., makes reference to stone needles originating from the East—in this case, East referring to the varied kingdoms on the Korean peninsula.

Considering that ancient Korean medical documents are pretty rare, we can only guess that compounds, comprised of things such as garlic and mugwort, might have been used for medicinal purposes. The legend of Korea’s mythical founder Dangun centers on a bear wishing to be a human, and how it was given mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic before eventually being transformed into a woman, who then conceived a child, who then begins Korea’s bloodline.

During the era known as Koguryo, the Three Kingdoms Period, which spanned nearly all of the first millennium, Korean medicine was largely influenced by Chinese medicine. Beginning in 414 A.D., and for roughly three centuries after, even the Japanese became heavily reliant on Koreans for their medical needs, including their physicians and drug experts. The cultural exchange between Korea and Japan during this period is well documented in Nihonshoki, Japan’s oldest book of history. However, records of medical books written by Koreans of that time have not yet been discovered.


It was in 1596 when King Seonjo of the Chosun Dynasty commanded his court physician, Heo Jun, to compile a book of Korean traditional medicine based on local herbs and remedies that could cater specifically to life on the peninsula.


It was in 1596 when King Seonjo of the Chosun Dynasty commanded his court physician, Heo Jun, to compile a book of Korean traditional medicine based on local herbs and remedies that could cater specifically to life on the peninsula. In 1610, after 13 years of intensive work, the Dongui Bogam (????) was published. It has since been reprinted 18 times in Korea, China and Japan and, since its initial publication, replaced practically all the previously existing books throughout the Orient as a textbook or a bedside reference book.

After two devastating invasions at the turn of the 16th century, one by Japan (1592-1598) and the other by the Manchu in China (1636-1637), a group of scholars emerged called Silhakpa (silhak meaning practical learning). They had a vision for the world to come, and strived to develop new technology from both Korea and abroad to strengthen their kingdom. But the Japanese and the Manchus had left an indelible mark, and the sentiment of the time was that Korea would simply stop embracing knowledge from outside its borders.

Thus, the voices of those Silhak scholars fell on to the deaf ears of quarreling Confucian mandarins in the court, and Korea became what would be known for centuries as the ‘Hermit Kingdom.’

One cannot help but wonder, if the Silhak scholars had their way and had their cries been heard, if Korea would have been better off sooner in history, able to develop modern culture and technology earlier than we did.

In the 19th century, when colonialism was was running rampant in the Far East, Korea had become easy prey for Japan and it’s newly born colonial ambitions. The Hermit Kingdom suddenly had no choice but to open its door to the outside world. From a positive perspective, worldly medical knowledge slowly seeped in across her shores.

In 1885, for the first time in Korea, a Western medicine was introduced by Dr. Horace Allen, a protestant missionary who graduated from medical school in Miami, Ohio. Dr. Allen’s methods won over the Korean elite when he saved Min Yong-ik, a member of the pro-Chinese party, stabbed and critically wounded though the power struggle in Seoul with a pro-Japanese faction.


One cannot help but wonder, if the Silhak scholars had their way and had their cries been heard, if Korea would have been better off sooner in history, able to develop modern culture and technology earlier than we did.


From that time the prestige of Western medicine soared. In 1908, Daehan Hospital (the great Korean hospital and origin of Seoul National University Hospital) was built by Emperor Kojong’s decree. While most of the country continued practicing traditional Korean medicine, advances of Western medicine had garnered a solid foothold.

The end of the Korean War, in 1953, posed a new problem for the new nation of South Korea: How do you start from scratch? On April 27, 1965, the first traditional Korean medical education institute in Korea was developed by the union of Kyung Hee University and Dongyang Medical College.

Soon after, however, a third school, Dongwang Medical School, was shut down after years of financial struggles. Kyung Hee University took over the college and established the Department of Traditional Korean Medicine. The college succeeded in drug-free acupuncture anesthesia for the first time in the world in 1972, and launched a research project on applying the combination of both traditional Korean and Western medicine.

Now, new traditional Korean medicine is defined as New Medicine. We have several great traditional medical hospitals including Jaseng Hospital, which began in Korea and has since opened a location in Los Angeles, and has become famous since they successfully treated slipped disc via invasive surgery on famous Korean athletes, such as figure skater Kim Yu-na and footballer Park Ji-sung.

One of my dearest friends, who is one of the few doctors that have both Western medicine and traditional medicine certificates, told me that what we saw, what we were taught in college, is not always true when applied to real patients. As a physician and neurologist myself for the past decade, I couldn’t agree more. And he also added there are many diseases that could be treated or at least controlled by so-called New Medicine.

Now, in Korea, we have 11 traditional medicine colleges and one graduate school. They are striving to bring global acceptance to traditional Korean medicine, to make it more commonplace across the world, through exchanges and joint research with overseas traditional medical schools in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Australia. Sooner or later, I hope to see the New Korean Wave of medicine.


Sanghyo Ryu is a neurologist at Good Gang-an Hospital in Busan. Find them online at eng.gang-an.or.kr

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