A recent article (newscom.Au November 24, 2013) once again sheds light on a sad chapter of Korean medical history and society – the plight of leprosy victims – particularly those on Sorok Island. It appears that some of the former inmates – inhabitants does not seem fitting – have returned to the island that was once described as “hell on earth”.
Yu Myung-sun, 61, who lived on Sorok for six years until 1974, returned in 2008 after living with other former leprosy sufferers in a village near Seoul. People outside the village “wouldn’t even look at me … restaurants wouldn’t sell meals to us,” Yu said.
“People on Sorok Island make me feel at ease,” she said, wearing a pair of big sunglasses, her face dotted with black spots from anti-leprosy medication. “I feel comfortable here and this is where I’ll die.”
Starting about a decade ago, the number of returning former patients began gradually increasing. Over the past few years, about 70 people, mostly former residents, have resettled here each year.
HISTORY AND SUPERSTITIONS
It is a sad article but what I found touching was this:
Oh Dong-Chan, a dental surgeon and the longest-serving physician on the island at 18 years, said many former patients have come back as word has spread that conditions on the island have improved. He said he often treats his patients, who are used to be shunned, with his bare hands because he knows they like the feel of bare skin.
It reminded me very much of how the first hospital was set up in Gwangju for these poor sufferers. It was established about 1909 through the efforts of Dr. Wiley Forsythe after he encountered a woman on the road nearly dead from the disease. He bundled her up and took her back to the mission hospital but, because the other patients were so afraid of catching the disease, was forced to house her out in a brick kiln. In her book, Martha Huntley described the incident:
A group gathered at the brick kiln saw her coming down the road, assisted over the difficult places by the loving and unshrinking hands of Dr. Forsythe. The thought in the mind of each of us, ‘How like his Master’…Dr. Forsythe, every inch a gentleman and dressed as such, every now and then grasping the arm of this woman, loathsome from disease, filth, and long neglect…Her hair had been uncombed perhaps for months, or even years, her clothes were ragged and filthy, her feet and hands swollen and covered with sores…on one foot was a straw shoe, on the other a thick piece of paper had been tied.
The woman died two weeks later but money was raised to build shelter for a handful of patients. The blog Ethnoscopes has an excellent write up of Joji Wilson Kohjima, the great grandson of Robert Manton Wilson, an American doctor who worked in Kroea from 1907-1941 treating the victims of this disease. Notice in this account the poor woman was being stoned by the Korean villagers.
It is also interesting to note that sufferers of the disease were mainly found in the southern part of the country. I wonder if there were more victims originally in the south or perhaps those in the north traveled south for the milder climate. There were some victims in the Wonju area in the 1920s who begged for food and aid as well as in Seoul in the 1890s, but the vast majority appear to have been in the southern part of the peninsula. They were reduced to beggars as described by this Korean describing a neighbor in Pohang with the disease:
It was a death sentence for him and a catastrophe for his family. Leprosy in Korea was shrouded in older superstition and medical ignorance. Lepers were abandoned by their own families and eventually became roving beggars with no eyebrows, lopped-off noses, and no fingers or toes, all eaten away by the disease.
These beggars were not only shunned for their disease but also because of the desperation they might exhibit in their attempts to cure themselves of their affliction. Up until the 1960s, mothers often frightened their children by telling them that unless they stopped crying, a leper would come and steal them and eat them. When I lived in Gangwon Province, a friend’s grandmother told me that as a child she used to carry red pepper powder as a form of mace to protect herself from lepers. It was said that lepers would haunt the cornfields and pounce upon children to eat their livers in the belief that this would cure them. How true was this?
In January 1917, the St. Petersburg Times reported:
Seoul, Korea. Justifying his act by the Korean superstition that the eating of human flesh is a cure for leporosy, a Korean leper named Sin Yungsyun has confessed to the murder of a five-year-old-boy, whose mutilated body was discovered in a field in South Cholla province. According to the police, the accused also admitted that with another leper he killed a girl in the mountains on September 15, and that both had eaten of her flesh.
Lepers in Korea hitherto led a miserable life. With the exception of those cared for by missionaries in a small hospital near Fusan, they have been left to roam at will and eke out their own living. The superstition as to cannibal cure is very general.
There were others as demonstrated by this article from the Seoul Press (April 18, 1928 – sorry no link, hard-copy transcription):
A wave of superstition seems to be still running high among Korean lepers. It is understood from Taikyu that a leper named Cho Yoh Soon aged 28 of Kingokudo, Keishu, North Keisho Province was recently arrested on the charge of exhuming the remains of a baby from the public cemetery under the impression the ‘Human Flesh Liquor’ is very efficacious for the cure of leprosy.
Apparently these were not isolated incidents. The Korean poet Seo Jung-ju wrote this poem about the belief. Maybe they should have used Korean Ginseng – said to cure everything.
But where did these superstitions come from? One scholar claims that there was no social stigma associated with lepers in Korea until the missionaries arrived and claimed it was ‘divine punishment’ but this doesn’t seem likely as Eunjung Kim notes in his excellent paper “Cultural Rehabilitation: Hansen’s Disease, Gender and Disability in Korea”. According to him, there were not only accounts of cannabalism but also body snatchers who sold organs to the afflicted:
“However, the image of the flesh eater and its association with leprosy were not invented in the beginning of the modern era. In The Annals of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn Wangjo Silok), there are several entries regarding the use of human flesh to cure diseases such as epilepsy and leprosy. For instance, the chronicle of the King So˘ngjong, “So˘ngjong Silok,” records that there was a woman, Tu˘lbi, who cut off her finger, dried, powdered, and fed it to her husband upon hearing that flesh was good for curing sickness. As a result of her actions, her husband’s leprosy was cured (“So˘ngjong Sillok” 29 February 1472).
In the King Sŏnjo period, the chronicle records that there were vagabonds who stole gallbladders by kidnapping and attacking people in order to sell the organs to lepers seeking cures. Sŏnjo ordered the arrest of these organ snatchers (“Sŏnjo Sillok” 26 June 1576). Although these anecdotal reports tie lepers to cannibalism, they hardly represent lepers as a group of anti-social attackers. Instead, human organs were sold by nonlepers as a source of medicine to the lepers who were seeking cures. The wife’s sacrifice of her finger for curing the husband was recorded as an exemplar of her loyalty to her husband. The association between leprosy and the use of human body as medicine was somehow twisted into the image of lepers who sacrifice the lives of other people for cures.
While this image of lepers as child-eating vagabonds was dispersed through the newly available printed public media, the discourse of infection and the hereditary nature of the disease started to emerge in the propaganda supporting the sterilization and institutionalization of lepers after the 1930s. This fear seems to have advanced and later coexisted with the fear of leprosy infection, but it has not been replaced. Between 1920 and 1931, there were 21 articles in Tonga Ilbo (East Asia Daily), one of the popular Korean newspapers after 1920, about lepers allegedly attacking, kidnapping, and killing women and children, and eating the organs of the dead bodies. By contrast, there are only four entries about seeing a leper’s presence in restaurants or public baths as a threat to public health. There is no mention of infection and only one entry mentioning male sterilization as a way of stopping the genetic transference and eradicating leprosy.
These boogyman stories and accounts seem to have been as Mr. Kim notes, propaganda to isolate the victims of the disease from the rest of the public. Thus began the Japanese-controlled leper colonies. Continue reading