Epidemics and the Medical Books of the Joseon Dynasty
One day in the distant future, looking back on the 21st Century, they will have recognized the COVID-19 has had dealt a staggering blow to the entire world. The COVID-19, which started breaking out in the early of the 21st Century, has had a devastating impact on the politics, economy, society, and culture of virtually all of the nations including South Korea. The pandemic did change our daily life and the government has spared no efforts in coping with the impacts and changes.
Historically speaking, such contagious diseases have made gigantic impacts and brought about big changes to the economy and society of an epidemic-stricken country. The Black Death, the pandemic of bubonic plague in the Middle Age, struck every corner of the European continent. The unprecedented death rate caused by the pandemic has caused tremendous changes in the European economy and social class structure, triggering the Renaissance across the European continent.
Then, how did our ancestors in the era of the Joseon Dynasty cope with contagious diseases? It is no wonder that epidemics did take a toll on them as well. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty shows more than 900 records related to epidemics which must have been feared by all people regardless of their social ranks like commoners, noblemen, and royalty. That’s why both government officials and civilians have tried every means to find treatments and preventive measures for epidemics, which required an enormous amount of effort and experience.
What did ancestors in the Joseon Dynasty do in discovering treatments and preventive measures for epidemics? They must have resorted to direct treatments and management for epidemics. It, however, was common that they recorded details of ideas and experiences of how they treated epidemics to share and pass the records on to descendants and helping them to learn how to prevent and treat such epidemics.
Publishing books was one of the representative means of sharing and distributing their knowledge far and wide. Books, in those days, were the sole means of communicating knowledge as there had been no media at all for sharing and distributing knowledge other than personal letters, notes, etc.
Our ancestors made their consistent efforts to compile medical knowledge including treatments and preventive measures for epidemics and publish medical books. Such of their incessant efforts and invaluable experiences are found in traditional medical books that were passed down to us. The traditional medical books, which describe the symptoms and treatments of epidemics, illustrates our ancestors’ agony and wisdom of how they fought epidemics.
The collection shows different types of traditional medical books aimed at preventing and treating epidemics. The collection is categorized into General Medical Books and Professional Medical Books by the time when the first edition was published. The general category includes “Hyang-Yak-Jip-Seong-Bang” (The Compilation of Pharmaceutical Treatments; 향약집성방), “Ui-Bang-Yu-Chwi” (The Encyclopedia of Medical Treatments; 의방유치), “Uirim-Chwall-Yo” (The Compendium of Medical Treatments; 의림촬요), and “Dong-Ui-Bogam”(Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicin; 동의보감). The professional category has books on epidemics such as murrain, smallpox, measles, etc.