“THE HISTORY of the Yonsei University Health System is the history of modern medicine in Korea.” Founded in 1885 as the first Western medical institution in Korea, the Yonsei University Health System has always been widely regarded as a milestone in the development of medical care for the people. Over the past century, the Health System has expanded from a small hospital named Che-jung-won to an extensive healthcare system encompassing various colleges and research centers. The founding principle of the Health System, “free mankind from disease and sickness,” has always stayed with the hospital, and is perhaps what enabled the Yonsei University Health System to withstand the test of time. The Yonsei Annals met with Professor Yeo In-sok (Prof. & Director, Dept. of Medical History Institute for History of Medicine) to discuss the Health System’s expansive history and trace the footsteps of Horace Allen, Oliver Avison, and Louis Severance, without whom the Yonsei University Health System would not be standing here today.
Che-jung-won: the beginning of the Yonsei University Health System
Che-jung-won was established in 1885 by American medical missionary Dr. Horace Allen. Its English name, “House of Universal Helpfulness,” is indicative of its original purpose of establishing a medical institution for anyone and everyone in need. “Royal physicians and medical establishments for the upper class have always existed throughout history,” explained Professor Yeo. “However, the same does not apply to people of the lower class.” Particularly at one point, the Joseon Court abolished Hye-Min-Seo, the only medical facility accessible to the common people. It was during this time that Dr. Allen arrived in Korea as a medical missionary.
“Korea was not very open to medical missionaries at the time,” continued Professor Yeo. “Under such circumstances, Dr. Allen could not openly disclose his status as a missionary, so at first he worked as a medical officer of the U.S. Legation to Korea. However, Dr. Allen earned King Gojong’s complete trust by treating the empress’ cousin Min Young-ik’s stab wound. So when Allen expressed his wish to establish a medical facility for the general public, King Gojong willingly consented and granted him a medical house, which was later named Che-jung-won.”
Historical records show that Che-jung-won quickly rose to fame by successfully conducting many surgical procedures and treating malaria, a rampant illness in Korea at the time.By witnessing the full recovery of treated patients, the people opened up to Western medicine, and began to trust Che-jung-won and its quality of medical services.
Seeing Che-jung-won progress as a reputable facility, Dr. Allen decided to initiate an education program in medicine in order to train more Korean doctors. Thus, the first modern medical education institution in Korea, Che-jung-won Medical School, was founded the following year in 1886.
Oliver Avison and Louis Severance build the Severance Memorial Hospital
Dr. Oliver Avison followed in Dr. Allen’s footsteps in running Che-jung-won and its medical school. As one of the founding fathers of the Health Center, Dr. Avison is the key figure that expanded and shaped the Severance Hospital into the modern university medical center that it is today. Due to his efforts, Che-jung-wonwas able to cut ties with the government and fully transition into an independent medical missionary organization in 1894. Further recognizing that the facility was in desperate need of a technological improvement, Dr. Avison strived to find ways to open a new hospital with more advanced equipment.
After several years of perseverance, he finally found a way. In a New York conference in 1900, Dr. Avison delivered a speech addressing the crucial need for a modern hospital in Korea. “This resulted in a generous donation from Louis Severance, a philanthropist who was one of the founding members of the Standard Oil Trust,” said Professor Yeo. With immense financial support from Severance, Dr. Avison was able to build a better-equipped hospital in 1904 across the street from the Seoul Station. The hospital was named as the Severance Memorial Hospital in order to recognize Severance’s significant contribution to the establishment. “A foundation created by Severance’s family continues to sponsor the hospital to this day,” added the professor.
Independence fighters who were the first graduates of the Severance Medical School
Several of the first seven graduates of the Severance Medical School not only worked for the improvement of the medical system in Korea, but also participated in the Korean independence movement during the Japanese colonial era. Kim Pil-sun and Park Seo-yang were two such graduates who became independence movement leaders based in China.
After graduation, both activists proceeded to remain in the school as professors. However, constant interference and oppression from the Japanese after the Korea-Japan Annexation forced the two graduates to leave for China. There, Kim Pil-sun built a sanctuary for the Korean refugees and a modern hospital in the Southern Jiandao region. He treated injured Korean independence activists and donated the hospital’s profits to provide funds for the Korean Independence Army.
Similar to Kim Pil-sun, Park Seo-yang built a modern hospital in the Northern Jiandao region of China. He also founded an elementary school for the Korean refugees, but the institution was forced to shut down by the Japanese police soon after its existence was revealed.
“Such institutions established by our graduates also served as a shelter for the independence activists who travelled throughout China,” added Professor Yeo.
Confronting the obstacle of war
Professor Yeo pointed out that one of the most difficult times for the hospital was during the Japanese colonial era. “At the later stages of the colonial era, many schools were closed down. Yeonhui College, founded by another American missionary Horace Underwood, was also shut down, and although Severance was still operating, its name was changed to Asahi Medical School,” said the professor.
Conditions did not improve even after the end of the Japanese colonial era. In fact, the situation became increasingly difficult for the hospital during the Korean War. The repercussions of the war were significant and resulted in the demolition of more than 80% of the buildings of the school. Professor Yeo explained, “During the Korean War, the school was in front of the Seoul station, which was one of the busiest spots in Seoul. Therefore, this place was a frequent target of bombing, resulting in the destruction of the hospital buildings.”
However, these circumstances did not hamper the hospital’s provision of medical care. The Severance Union Medical College proceeded to build refugee hospitalsin Geoje Island, Wonju and Cheongdo, relocating to the southern part of the peninsula as it was difficult to keep the school running in Seoul. Even in dire times of destruction, the hospital maintained its value of providing for the people in need, which, in this case, was in the form of treating refugee patients.
“Wars can be a source of demolition, but they themselves are also the source of reconstruction,” said Professor Yeo, emphasizing the resilience of the hospital. During and after the war, both domestic and international organizations provided financial aid to support the restoration of the medical schools, and the U.S. Army was one of the most generous benefactors. These combined efforts made the partial restoration of the buildings possible.
The post-war restoration and plans for a new school design initiated talks of a merge between the Severance Union Medical College and Yeonhui College in 1957. Mutual agreement from both schools led to the birth of Yonsei University. This was not unexpected as there had been many exchanges between the Severance Union Medical College and Yeonhui College even before the merge due to the close relationship between Underwood and Avison.“As missionaries from the same Presbyterian Church, they often helped each other and worked together,” Professor Yeo told the Annals. After founding Yeonhui College in 1915, Underwood passed away the following year. “So Avison was the principal of both schools since then, and remained so for 18 years,” said Professor Yeo, explaining the special link between the two schools.
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Ever since its establishment in 1885, the Yonsei University Health System has always preserved its core values of putting patients first. Even in the midst of war, providing medical care to anyone in need was—and still is—the center’s foremost priority. With this guiding principle of providing only the best for its patients, the Health System continues to invest in research and development to implement the most advanced medical technology available today. By also engaging in various social service programs, the Yonsei University Health System maintains and actualizes the spirit of giving back to society. Although 133 years have passed, the Health System’s foundational belief of combating sickness and making healthcare more accessible to all people remains unchanged.