Smallpox

Smallpox was one of the most feared diseases on the peninsula, and almost every person past the age of

10 years had smallpox scars (Hirsch 1883). In fact, children were hardly considered members of the family until they survived their bout with this illness. One woman told Avison that she had given birth to

11 children, but that all of them had died of smallpox before reaching the age of 2 years.

It is interesting that most medical missionaries never mentioned the practice of inoculation and asserted that in Korea there were no methods of prevention or treatment other than magical ceremonies to propitiate the evil spirit that supposedly caused the disease. On the other hand, Woods had no difficulty in learning about the Korean method of smallpox inoculation during his 3-month visit. In a meet ing with an elderly Korean physician the subject of smallpox was the major topic of discussion. According to Woods, smallpox was so common and "apparently so mild in type" that it was considered no more dangerous than measles. Perhaps he misinterpreted a situation in which mortality from measles made it almost as dangerous as smallpox. In any case, Woods noted that Koreans had practiced inoculation for centuries and that vaccination was beginning to displace the ancient methods.

Inoculation was commonly performed by powdering the smallpox scab, placing it on cotton, and introducing it into the nostrils. Alternatively, the scab was mixed with candy and given to the child. That these methods were not very effective, however, can be seen by the fact that the disease seemed to leave its characteristic sign on so many. On one occasion, when surrounded by a crowd of men and boys in Seoul, Woods amused himself by counting those who were pock-marked; he counted 40 with scarred faces among 70 people (Bohm and Swartout, Jr. 1984).

The question of smallpox scars was said to have determined Queen Min's survival in the palace intrigues of 1882. When King Kojong's father seized power, he condemned the Queen to death. Disguised as a peasant, the Queen tried to escape to the countryside, but she was stopped by guards at the city gate. Because the guards did not know the Queen, one of them suggested that they examine the woman's face, knowing other members of her family to be pock-marked. The Queen's face was perfectly smooth. Sure that a woman of good complexion could not be a member of the Min family, the guards let her go free. Eventually the King and Queen were restored, and the King's father became a state prisoner in Peking (Bohm and Swartout, Jr. 1984).

Vaccination was increasingly accepted during the early twentieth century. Hall, who was born in Korea in 1893, noted that smallpox had been very prevalent when he was a boy, but had been practically eradicated in the late 1920s (Hall 1978). In 1909, as many as 4,540 people suffered from the disease. In the following year, of the 2,425 Koreans who contracted smallpox, 445 died; 36 out of 455 Japanese who also contracted the disease died (Miki 1962). In 1921, there were 8,321 reported cases, but by 1936 this had been reduced to 1,400, with 371 deaths. In 1937, there were only 205 cases with 44 deaths, but the number of deaths rose again in 1940, which was reported to have been an epidemic year. The fatality rate estimated during the first 40 years of the twentieth century was about 20 to 27 percent (Simmons et al. 1944).

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