Heo Jun: brilliant physician in 16th century Korea
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
|Heo Jun holding Donguibogam
Heo Jun Museum, Korea
At the end of the 16th Eastern medicine, especially that of Korea, underwent significant advances under the leadership of Heo Jun (1546-1615), a royal physician who authored Donguibogam, a treasured Korean traditional medical encyclopedia.
Heo Jun was born in 1539 to an affluent military family. He was well educated and financially secure throughout his childhood. Although he belonged to a wealthy and respected household, he is thought to have faced discrimination from his lineage members and other aristocrats because he was born to a concubine. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), illegitimate children of aristocrats could not maintain their fathers’ yangban or noble status and instead, were considered chungins. Chungins, or “middle people,” typically referred to technicians and administrators subordinate to yangbans. While Heo’s motivation to pursue medicine is unclear, his social status as a chungin may have prevented him from becoming a civil or a military officer like his father.
In 1571, at age thirty-three, Heo entered Naeuiwon, the royal clinic of the Joseon Dynasty. After that, he was continuously promoted within the clinic at an unprecedented rate. In 1575 Heo treated King Seonjo, the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1568-1608) and rose to senior third rank1 government official position after curing the Crown Prince’s smallpox in 1590. The Imjin War, or the Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592-1598), further solidified King Seonjo’s trust in Heo, who loyally accompanied the King throughout the war in contrast to other government officers who cowardly fled to protect their own lives. King Seonjo rewarded Heo’s allegiance and yet another successful treatment of the diseased Crown Prince by promoting him to the senior second rank in 1596. In 1600, Heo became the chief physician of Naeuiwon. During this time, King Seonjo ordered Heo to write a medical book for his citizens, who suffered from epidemics and post-war famines. He wanted to publish a book that promoted preventative care and detailed drug formulas and treatment methods that even uneducated commoners could easily comprehend and access. King Seonjo’s initiative is noted as one of the first public healthcare programs of the Joseon Dynasty.
In 1608 King Seonjo died. Government officials jealous of Heo’s illustrious career accused him of being culpable for the King’s death. Heo was exiled to the countryside Ulju, where he continued to write the book. In 1609, King Gwanghaegun, the successor to Seonjo, restored Heo to office despite many officials’ disapproval. Like his father, Gwanghaegun appreciated Heo’s talent and loyalty. In 1610, Heo finally completed the twenty-five volumes of Donguibogam after fifteen years of continuous effort. Heo spent the last years of his life educating young physicians of Naeuiwon until his death in 1615. The title of senior first rank officer was conferred posthumously—an unprecedented feat that had long been hampered by yangban officials.
Donguibogam literally means “Mirror of Eastern Medicine.” It is divided into five chapters: Internal Medicine, External Medicine, Miscellaneous Diseases, Remedies, and Acupuncture. In the first chapter, Internal Medicine, Heo describes the interdependence of the liver, lung, kidney, heart, and spleen. The chapter on External Medicine explains how the skin, muscles, blood vessels, tendons, and bones allow for movement and maintenance of posture. The chapter on Miscellaneous Diseases describes the symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment methods of various diseases. Heo’s remedies rely on medicinal herbs and plants, and he provides impressively detailed instructions on how to extract, maintain, and consume the herbs. The last chapter explicates acupuncture strategies. Donguibogam is one of the most valued treasures of Korea owing to its originality and quality. It provides valuable medical knowledge and also reflects the philosophy of seventeenth century East Asia. As the backbone of Eastern medicine to this day, Donguibogam was recently included in the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2009.
To this day, Heo Jun is revered as a brilliant physician and a loyal and compassionate person, who strived to develop accessible treatments for the poor and uneducated citizens.
- The government officials of the Joseon Dynasty were ranked in eighteen levels, ranging from senior first rank to junior ninth rank. Most of these officials, especially those of the top three senior ranks, came from yangban families.
- Han, Sang Hee. “Mirror of Eastern Medicine becomes UNESCO Heritage.” The Korea Times, July 31, 2009.
- Heojun Museum. “Heojun Dataroom.” Accessed December 7, 2013. http://www.heojun.seoul.kr.
- Kyung, Yeon. “Donguibogam: Precious Book of Medicine.” UNESCO: The Courier 9, (2009): 18-20.
- Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. “Heo Jun.” Accessed December 7, 2013. http://nationalculture.mcst.go.kr/person/data/person_view.jsp?cp_seq=19.
JIYEON SON, AB, is an aspiring physician currently working in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as a research assistant. She graduated from Princeton University in 2012 with a concentration in Anthropology and certificate in Neuroscience.
Summer 2014 | Sections | Physicians of Note