Heo Jun, the Legendary Doctor of Joseon

Written by on March 27, 2013 in Arts, Special Report

Know any famous doctors? Ask this question to a Korean and most likely the answer you’ll hear is “Heo Jun” (허준). Never mind that he was a physician of the Joseon Dynasty some centuries ago, Heo Jun is without a doubt the most noted doctor in Korean history. His accomplishments set up a solid foundation for Korean medicine. His greatest achievement is the compilation of “Dongeui Bogam” (동의보감, 東醫寶鑑, Eastern Medicinal Manual), a 25 volume of medicinal studies and records which are still relevant today.

However, one does not simply become a legend because of great achievements. (You’d think so, but when there’s 5,000 years of history to deal with you’ve got a lot of competition.) What especially captured people’s attention about Heo Jun was his personal history, how it affected his path, and how his life was caught up in the political turmoil of the times.

Heo Jun (2013) Photo courtesy of www.imbc.com

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.

Portrait of Heo Jun. Photo courtesy of Academy of Korean Studies. www.aks.ac.kr

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 (선조), 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.

Dongeui Bogam. Photo courtesy of the Heo Jun Museum.

The writing of “Dongeui 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 Imjin War but was again halted when the Japanese attacked once again. 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 Gwanghaegun (광해군), King Seonjo’s second son and successor to the throne.

A diagram from the Dongeui Bogam. Photo courtesy of http://book.daum.net

It was during Gwanghaegun’s reign in 1610 when “Dongeui 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 “Dongeui 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.

Heo Jun in “Determination” (1975) Photo courtesy of www.imbc.com

As for the fictional portrayals (and why I’m talking about Heo Jun at this particular time), there is currently a new TV drama on MBC titled “Guam Heo Jun”. (Guam is Heo Jun’s pen name.) The drama stars Kim Joo-hyuk (김주혁) in the main role, who is not only a brilliant actor but also the son of the late Kim Mu-saeng (김무생), who had played Heo Jun in the drama “Determination” (집념), almost 40 years ago, in 1975.

Heo Jun (1999) Photo courtesy of www.imbc.com

The drama takes on fictional license of course, and is basically the remake of one of the most popular Korean dramas of all time, “Heo Jun” of 1999. That series starred Jeon Gwang-ryul (전광렬) and made him a household name. It also broke new ground in the period TV drama genre, introducing new perspectives and breaking the long hold tradition of only focusing on the “serious” and “dramatic”. Back stories of the characters and character development started to be considered very important, which was a different approach than the usual, where historical events and incidents carried the plot. This formula was adapted and developed even further, such as in “Daejanggeum” (대장금, Flower in the Court), so you can say Heo Jun was not only responsible of the progress of Korean medicine, but also the format of Korean period dramas.
The new series has just started, as always with amazing acting from the child actors, and it’ll be interesting to see how the story unfolds, and how they update it from the past version.

Photo courtesy of the Heo Jun Museum

For more information about Heo Jun – the non-fictional kind – there is a Heo Jun Museum in Gangseo-gu of Seoul, the district where he was born, which is dedicated to all things Heo Jun. A very kid-friendly museum, it is a popular place for educational school field trips and also for the curious grown-up.

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul