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Is there a doctor in the peninsula? – Heo Jun and the Donguibogam medical textbook

Known as one of the greatest books in the history of Eastern medicine, the Donguibogam was composed by Heo Jun, a court physician in the early 17th century, and is today included as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Heo Jun (1545~1615)
Heo Jun (1545~1615)

Despite the huge advances in medicine since that time, it is still referred to by doctors today. It has been reprinted more than 30 times in China – a new edition nearly every decade – and contains insights that in some cases did not enter the medical knowledge of Europe until the twentieth century.

The book is in essence a review of the history of medicine in East Asia, covering thousands of symptoms, medicines, and prescriptions, as well as hundreds of acupuncture techniques.

The content was arranged according to the organs affected, which at the time was a substantial innovation. The rationale for this was that when the body is the starting point and not the disease, the study of medicine is given far more coherence and order.

Donguibogam (1613)

Considering the large and diverse of number medical works available at the time, Donguibogam‘s holistic and well-ordered approach formed a large part of its value to contemporary doctors. With a tone of palpable relief, the editor of the first edition of the Donguibogam writes, ‘In a mountain of medical literature, this was a hidden treasure trove.’

Japanese envoys made a point of collecting medical texts whenever they visited Korea, and a version of the text was published in 1724 in Japan. 24 years later, a Korean delegate who fell ill on an embassy to Japan was gratified to see that the Japanese doctor treating him was using a copy.

In Western Europe, modern medicine was pioneered by the Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514~1564) with his work De Humanis Corporis Fabrica. This was later built upon by William Harvey (1578~1657), who as the first Western doctor to describe the circulation of blood, is regarded as the father of modern physiology.

Despite a clearer appreciation of bodily structures, the understanding of pathology in 17th century Europe remained basic, with Galen’s (129 – 199 AD) theory of the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) dominant. Few drugs were available, and treatments tended to be fairly rudimentary.

By far the greatest merit of Donguibogam is that it has saved countless lives. Heo Jun sought ways to enhance the effectiveness of inexpensive medicinal ingredients that could be obtained easily. His great goal was to find a medicine that everyone could use and afford. In this respect he embodied the Korean philosophy of ‘Hongik Ingan’ – ‘to live and work for the benefit of all mankind’ – on which the country was founded by the ruler Tangun in 2,333 BC.


Find out more about the Donguibogam at the information stall of Sancheong County in the Korean Village at the Thames Festival on 10-11 September 2011.

5 thoughts on “Is there a doctor in the peninsula? – Heo Jun and the Donguibogam medical textbook

  1. Hi,

    Apprecaite if you could let me know how to obtain a copy (English edition) of Heo Jun’s book of medicine, I have just finished watching the show on DVD and it was fantastic….


      1. The 2013 target date is really unmovable: that’s the 400th anniversary of its original publication. I’m guessing that they’ll have a few copies available at the 2013 International Donguibogam Expo down in Sancheong County in September 2013. I’m kind of assuming I’ll be there!

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