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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Koihime Musou Girls and Famous Koreans, Part XXXVI: Xu Chu and Guam Heo Jun (1546-1615) - the Legendary Doctor of Joseon


Guam Heo Jun (Hangul/Hanja: 구암 허준/龜巖 許浚; Born: 1546 in Hapo-ri, Jindong-myeon, Paju City, Gyeonggi Province - Died: 1615 in Heogabawi, Gayang-dong, Seoul Gangseo-gu) was a court physician of the Yangcheon Heo Clan during the reign of King Seonjo of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. He was appointed as a court physician at the age of 29. He wrote a number of medical texts, but his most significant achievement is Dongui Bogam (lit. "Mirror of Eastern Medicine"), which is often noted as the defining text of traditional Korean medicine. The work spread to East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Vietnam where it is still regarded as one of the classics of Oriental medicine today. 

Heo Jun was born into a military household in 1546. Both his grandfather and father were highly ranked officials so he was born into an affluent family. However, his mother was a concubine, and in the Joseon era, being born into these circumstances meant lower status within the family and also in society. There are no detailed records of Heo Jun’s youth but one can easily guess what he might have went through while growing up, despite being privileged enough to receive a fine education.

It is said that he was unusually bright and knowledgeable in literature and history. Perhaps because of his leanings in these interests, or perhaps because he wanted to differentiate himself from the family legacy, instead of choosing a military career, Heo Jun chose medicine. Because there are no accurate records of his youth, there have been many fictional portrayals of Heo Jun overcoming these social obstacles to become the most noted physician of his time.

Heo Jun became a member of the Naeuiwon (내의원), the pharmacy and clinic within the royal palace, at the age of twenty-nine. According to personal records of a noble acquaintance, he had already been studying and practicing medicine with great success, and because of the recommendations of the aforementioned noble, he was accepted into the royal institution at a high position despite his social status.

His quick rise to the top only affirms what he was capable of, and it can be assumed he was met with a mixture of awe, resentment, respect, and jealousy among his peers. He was quickly appointed as royal physician to King Seonjo, with whom he had a good rapport until his death. Along with treating the royal ailments, he continued with his studies, writing and editing many medicinal journals and books.

The writing of “Dongui Bogam”, a medicinal encyclopedia featuring all the knowledge available in the countries of East Asia started during King Seonjo’s reign, in the aftermath of the Japanese Imjin Invasion but was again halted when the Japanese attacked once again which is known as Japanese Jeong-yu Incursion. Regardless of these difficulties, Heo Jun decided to take on this project as his life’s vocation and worked on the books steadily over the years. His loyalty and many accomplishments were essential in his continuous promotions, some of which were unusually favorable considering his social status. These were met with frequent opinions of dissent along the way, as the royal court was in political divide, with endless disputes and power struggles.

King Seonjo died in 1608. Heo Jun got caught up in the political divide and was exiled as the “responsible” physician for the king’s death although he was quickly restored to office due to his positive reputation and relationship with King Gwanghae, King Seonjo’s second son and successor to the throne.

It was during King Gwanghae’s reign in 1610 when “Dongui Bogam” was completed, 14 years after it was started and while he was in exile: 4 books regarding internal medicine, 4 books about surgery, 11 books various diseases and ailments, 3 books about pharmaceuticals, 1 book about acupuncture, and 2 table of contents and glossary completes the set of 25 volumes. It is a complete encyclopedia of the vast medicinal and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice of that time. As I’ve mentioned before, it is still referenced today in the practice of traditional medicine.

Being back at the Naeuiwon, Heo Jun wrote more books about medicine in his later years, but “Dongui Bogam” was his crowning achievement, establishing him as Korea’s most famous doctor, and one of Asia’s top physicians. Heo Jun died in 1615 and was awarded a posthumous title of honor.

Although Heo Jun worked extensively with the royal family, he put a great emphasis on making treatment methods accessible and comprehensible to common people. He found natural herb remedies that were easily attainable by commoners in Korea. Furthermore, he wrote the names of the herbs using the simple hangul letters instead of using more difficult hanja (Chinese characters), which most commoners did not understand.



About Heo Jun Museum
Heo Jun Museum (Hanja: 許浚博物館), a building with three stories above the ground and sized in 3,934 sq m, which is located at 87 Heo Jun Avenue/Heojunno, Gayang 2-dong 26-5 beonji, Seoul Gangseo-gu, opened on March 23rd 2005 in honor of academic accomplishments and charitable deeds of the renowned medical scientist, Heo Jun and to popularize Korean traditional medicine.  

The museum is composed of the Heojun Memorial Hall, a Herb and Medicine Room, a Medical Supply Room, an Experience Hall, and two floors of a Naeuiwon (government-run medicinal office during the Joseon Dynasty) and an oriental medicine clinic. In addition, there is Heojun Park and Heogabawi Rock, which are situated beside the museum. Apart from things related to Heojun, various exhibits, especially high-tech displays such as models, media and touch-screens are also available and on display. 

At the Experience Hall, you will come closer to understanding oriental medicine by getting a first-hand experience of what it is like to be an Oriental doctor. Furthermore, the reappearance of Joseon Dynasty’s Naeuiwon and oriental medicine clinic are exquisitely shown. There is also the resting area on the roof which is connected to the herbal medicine park, and offers a wonderful view to experience this vivid scene.