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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Korean Public Health for 400 years: Donguibogam

There are several versions of the Korean TV Drama Heo Jun, or Hur Jun (2013 version & 1999 version ) about the greatest physician in Korean history, the accredited author/editor of the Donguibogam (literally Mirror of Eastern Learning) (동의보감, 東醫寶鑑), Vol. 1-25. Not much is known about his life, and the TV dramas are largely fictional, but the legacy of the Donguibogam continues to live on after 400 years. The wood block movable type volumes have been reprinted 40 times in China where it is highly revered as the major classic of medicine, and more than several times in Japan. The original first two prints are still preserved in as good as new condition in several libraries in Seoul. The UNESCO report on it, which comes close to the announcement of the first good English translation of the 25 volumes, attest to it being the first state sponsored public health text and policy. This is unprecedented in public health and only makes me think of the time John Snow removed the pump handle on the cholrea ridden water in London in 19th century.

The remedies and cures promoted by Heo Jun in the Donguibogam are household common knowledge, and I can attest to being treated and restored by several during my years I lived in Korea. Almost any folk remedy, herbal medicine, acupuncture is attributed to him and the Donguibogam. Korea has two medical systems, the traditional and the modern. Today's naturopathic doctors would be more like this form of traditional medicine, which is very popular in Korea.

In this modern world of digital health, I look forward to one day trying to read the translations in English, though I totally lack knowledge of the medical systems it contains. I have looked through one of the online original text volumes just to see if it did have Hangul (Korean phonetic writing) and not just Han Mun (Chinese), because most of the Koreans at the time could not read Han Mun, only the upper class literati. I did see some Hangul, but it is largely in Chinese. I can only watch in amazement at the TV Korean dramas, which come with English subtitles (which are not always professional grade, but mostly acceptable by the way), and which continue to pass on this knowledge at the same time as it raises Heo Joon to the level of a saint. This is from the UNESCO nomination for "Memory of the World":

Bogam is the first-ever comprehensive book on medical principles and practice edited and distributed nationwide, according to the innovative order by state to proclaim the ideals of public health by the state and preventive medicine.