Did you know that ... (Western, oriental medicine collide in Korea)
By Robert Neff
Following the opening of Korea to the West in 1882, many of the earliest Westerners to dwell here were missionary doctors.
Unsurprisingly, they clashed many times with their Korean counterparts in regards to culture, religion and how to practice medicine.
The idea that Korean doctors could take tapeworms, scorpions and various types of insects — including spiders and their webs — and mix them together to make medicines that were supposed to cure a host of complaints was just too fantastic and archaic for the Western doctors to accept.
William Hall declared that many of the treatments administered by Korean doctors were “too revolting to speak of even in a medical journal.” He went on to note that urine was commonly used as eyewash, wounds were treated with human feces and that one woman had even been instructed “to suck the syphilitic sores of her husband in order to cure him.” Many of the Western doctors were convinced that their Korean peers were nothing more than superstitious, uneducated witchdoctors and snake oil peddlers.
Of course, the Korean doctors also viewed the Western doctors with suspicion and tolerated their perceived ignorance in much the same manner as they would a slow and obstinate pupil. Hall once tried to stop a Korean doctor from administering to a mortally ill child because he thought the treatments were doing nothing but causing pain. According to Hall:
“He listened with a bland smile wondering, no doubt, at the impudence of a Western barbarian undertaking to instruct him” and continued on with his treatment. The child later died.
But not all doctors were as condescending as Hall.
“Most of the remedies were like those used by our own herb doctors and were such as our grandmothers prepared,” declared Dr. James Van Buskirk. “If we Westerners are tempted to feel superior, we might remember that it is only a short time since our own medical men made the discoveries that are basic to modern healing science.”
Not only did the Western and Korean methods of practicing medicine collide but so too did the culture of paying for medical services. According to Horace Allen, the first Western doctor to live and practice in Korea, the Koreans had “the principal of no cure no pay.” Because money was scarce, if the treatment was successful, the Koreans often paid the itinerant doctors with eggs, chickens, meat, and even live pigs.
When the first Western medical facilities opened they were swamped with Koreans — many of them merely curious onlookers. In order to weed out those who truly needed medical attention, a small nominal fee — in money — was charged. What the missionary doctors did not realize was that since money had been paid, the Koreans expected complete and favorable results. Unfortunately, that didn’t always happen.
While the majority of the Western doctors scoffed, a few were humble and all of them charged, at least one of the “enlightened” doctors was not above peddling his own snake oil.
Dr. Charles H. Irving, an American missionary doctor practicing in Fusan (modern Busan) in the early twentieth century, was always out for a dollar, hence his nickname, Dr. Gold Dollar. He created and promoted his own medicine that he grandiosely christened “Man Pyung-su,” the Cure for Ten Thousand Diseases. Apparently the concoction, which was marketed throughout Korea, “had no curative value but contained a good quality pain killer.” Irving’s questionable missionary and “medical ethics for selling this medicine for (a) large and personal profit” did not go unchallenged.
He was later investigated but found innocent of any wrongdoing. Irving, disenchanted with missionary life (and the fact that he divorced his wife to marry his Korean mistress) chose to resign from the missionary service and went into private practice in Fusan where he lived for a number of years — a very wealthy man.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.