The shows Ester traveling to offer medical services after returning to Korea.
/ Korea Times file
By Andrei Lankov
In 1903, the villagers in many remote hamlets of Hwanghae Province were treated by an unusual doctor — a Korean woman in her late 20s, dressed in Western dress and always riding a small Korean pony. She was not just a village doctor. She was also the first Korean woman to acquire a degree in Western medicine. Her name was Ester Pak.
Ester was born Kim Cheom-dong, in 1876 to a gentry family of modest income. Her father was one of the first Protestant converts in Korea, and, like many early Korean Christians, she chose to exclusively use her new Christian name — Ester Kim.
In Korea, Christianity had an association which might appear strange for many Westerners: it was a religion of progress, technology and modernity. At that time the Christian belief was part of an ideological package which also included “progress” and “enlightenment,” in other words — modernity. Those who believed in Christ almost always also believed in steam engines, the laws of Newtonian physics and the redeeming power of a modern education.
Thus Kim’s parents made a decision which in the 1880s was seen to be extravagant if not outright bizarre: they sent their daughter to Ewha School, a predecessor of Ewha University. Actually, she became the fourth student at this newly established school. Merely a couple of dozen Korean girls were receiving a formal education at the time — and virtually all such girls were born to Christian families.
At Ewha School, Ester was remarkably successful in her studies and demonstrated a keen interest in modern science as well as an exceptional gift for languages. She mastered English and, still a teenager, became an interpreter to well-known missionaries Rosetta Sherwood Hall, and later, Mary Scranton. Both Hall and Scranton shared the same dream: they yearned to make medical facilities available to all Korean women.
Confucian orthodoxy prescribed a strict separation of the sexes. Therefore, few — if any — well-heeled Korean women would dare to contact a male doctor, especially if their problems had something to do with reproductive health. This would be seen as outrageously immodest. Thus, the only way to make modern (that is, Western-type) medical services available to Korean women was to have hospitals staffed with female doctors (and in the long run, female Korean doctors).
In 1894, Rosetta Sherwood Hall and her husband moved to Pyongyang where they opened the city’s first modern hospital. This time they were assisted by the 18-year-old Ester Kim who acted as their interpreter and secretary. She was also called on to double as a nurse.
Ester was an obvious choice for training as a doctor. The Halls secured a scholarship for her, but the plan ran into some obstacles. Even such unusually open-minded people as Ester’s parents would not agree to let their unmarried daughter travel overseas.
In 1895, Ester married, thus removing this obstacle. Her spouse was chosen by missionaries and approved by her mother — as one would expect in the still patriarchal Korea. Nonetheless, Pak Yu-san proved to be a perfect match for her. The groom was another progressive-minded Christian activist.
For any professional movement in a traditional society, the right choice of partner was decisive. A conservative male could easily block all avenues to education and professional activity. She was lucky in that her husband proved to be understanding and supportive — unusually so for a man who grew up in what essentially was a patriarchal society. He did not see anything bizarre in his wife’s plan of studying overseas unlike the other 99.9 percent of Korean males at that time. Soon after the wedding ceremony, Ester left for the United States.
From that time, she began to call herself Ester Pak, after her husband’s surname. The early Korean feminists often changed their surnames after marriage, following the Western custom (Ester’s two sisters — both prominent educators — also followed the custom, becoming Maria Sin and Kim Pae-se).
In July 1900, Ester graduated from Baltimore Womens’ Medical College (now part of Johns Hopkins University) and became the first Korean woman to earn her M.D. Her husband Pak Yu-san contributed much to this success. While Ester studied, he did a number of difficult but relatively well-paid jobs which helped to pay the bills. Unfortunately, he did not survive to see his beloved wife become the first modern Korean female doctor and, in a sense, the first Korean female scientist. Pak Yu-san died suddenly in 1899, when still in his late 20s.
Ester Pak returned to Korea, where she was to lead a harsh and difficult but rewarding life, not unlike countless doctors who worked in the “colonies” (better known as the “Third World” from the 1960s onwards). She treated patients, fought epidemics and explained the basics of hygiene. The list of her achievements is impressive, and makes one wonder how one person could possibly do that much.
In 1902, Ester Pak played a prominent role in the attempts to control an outbreak of cholera. The villagers believed that the best way to prevent cholera entering their homes was to hang pictures of cats on their gates. Ester traveled extensively, introducing more reliable methods of preventing and treating patients.
In 1903, she traveled across Hwanghae and Pyeongan Provinces, covering some 400 kilometers on horseback. Her job was to offer free medical services to the inhabitants of remote mountain villages and check the general public health situation in the region.
In the hospital, she treated 2,000 to 3,000 patients every year. But this was not all. Ester Pak also translated a large number of Western textbooks and reference materials. She also encouraged young Korean girls to study, and played a major role in introducing nursing to Korea. She was even involved with Korea’s first school for blind children.
Ester overworked, and it began to tell. Her health deteriorated, but she did not slow down. Ester Pak died of a lung infection in 1910 in the house of her sister, also an educator.
It took almost a century for Korean women to become prominent in the areas of science. Nonetheless, the first step in that direction was made by a strong, energetic woman who was born in Pyongyang in 1876.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.