Skin Diseases and Leprosy

The texts describe many interesting and important skin diseases, but the most dreaded was certainly leprosy. In ancient Korea leprosy was nonspe-cifically referred to as "bad disease." Although various conditions that were included under this rubric were considered malignant and hard to cure, leprosy was probably the major disease. Medical texts of the Yi Dynasty referred to leprosy as "big-wind-lepra" or "big-wind-boil."

Leprosy was said to result when a "bad wind" got into the body, but the disease was also said to be transmitted from person to person. Records for 1445 in the Yijo Sillok describe outbreaks of leprosy in Cheju Island. According to the chronicler, the people of Cheju Island abandoned lepers in uninhabited areas along the coast because they feared them as sources of contagion. Another folk belief found in the historical records for 1613 was based on the idea that when lepers washed their boils, the fish in the river or the chickens in the house would acquire the leprosy. Then when city people ate the contaminated fish or chicken, they would be infected (Miki 1962). Leprosy was also seen as Heaven's punishment for criminal acts in this life or past lives.

The historical literature also indicates a tradition of relief work and quarantine for leprosy, especially on Cheju Island where the disease was most prevalent. However, people greatly feared infection, and so lepers were abandoned on uninhabited islands and there were also many "accidents" in which lepers fell from the cliffs. Officials did establish "relief places" and "cure places" and tried to help lepers by appointing priests and medical students to give them medicine and help them bathe in the ocean. An entry in the historical records for 1612 states: "Leprosy is the worst disease under the sky" (Miki 1962).

The ancient medical texts also describe erysipelas, carbuncles, dermatitis, furunculosis, inflammations, abscesses, tumors, pustules, lymphagitis, and gangrene, as well as scabies, which probably existed in Korea and China from ancient times. Texts from the Yi Dynasty described this condition and useful methods of cure, including sulfur poultices. The Tongui pogam says that there are five kinds of scabies: dry, damp, sand, insect, and pus.

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