Korean J Med Hist.  2019 Aug;28(2):469-508. 10.13081/kjmh.2019.28.469.

Death and Survival of Patients with Hansen's Disease in Colonial Korea

  • 1The Institute for Social Development and Policy Research, Korea. hyungjk77@gmail.com


The purpose of this research is to describe how Hansen's disease patients experienced the modern system of control of Hansen's disease introduced by Japan, and the inimical attitude of society against them in colonial Korea. The study also seeks to reveal the development of the system to eliminate Hansen's disease patients from their home and community to larger society and leprosarium in this era. Sorokdo Charity hospital (SCH), a hospital for Hansen's disease patients, was built in 1916, and vagrant Hansen's disease patients began to be isolated in this hospital beginning in 1917 by the Japanese Government-General of Korea (JGGK). Once the police detained and sent vagrant Hansen's disease patients to SCH, stigma and discrimination against them strengthened in Korean society. Because of strong stigma and discrimination in Korean society, Hansen's disease patients suffered from daily threats of death. First, their family members were not only afraid of the contagiousness of Hansen's disease but also the stigma and discrimination against themselves by community members. If a family had a Hansen's disease patient, the rest of community members would discriminate against the entire family. Furthermore, because Hansen's disease patients were excluded from any economic livelihood such as getting a job, the existence of the patients was a big burden for their families. Therefore, many patients left their homes and began their vagrancy. The patients who could not leave their homes committed suicide or were killed by their family members. The victims of such deaths were usually women, who were at the lower position in the family hierarchy. In the strong Confucian society in Korea, more female patients were killed by themselves than male patients. Moreover, all of patients victims in the murder were women. This shows that the stigma and discrimination against Hansen's disease patients within their families were stronger against women than men. Strong stigma and discrimination made the patients rely on superstition such as cannibalism. Patients believed that there were not any effective medicine. There were a few reports of patients who were cured, and many were treated with chaulmoogra oil in the modern Hansen's disease hospitals. Eating human flesh was known as a folk remedy for Hansen's disease. As such, patients began to kill healthy people, usually children, to eat their flesh. Increased stigma led to increased victims. Hansen's disease patients who left their homes faced many threats during their vagrancy. For survival, they established their own organizations in the late 1920's. The patients who were rejected to be hospitalized in the Western Hansen's disease hospital at Busan, Daegu, and Yeosu organized self-help organizations. The purpose of these organizations was first to secure the medicine supply of chaulmoogra oil. However, as stigma and discrimination strengthened, these organizations formed by Hansen's disease patients demanded the Japanese Government-General of Korea to send and segregate them on Sorok island. They did not know the situation of the inside of this island because news media described it as a haven for patients, and very few patients were discharged from this island to tell the truth. On this island, several hundreds of patients were killed by compulsory heavy labor, starvation, and violence. They were not treated as patients, but as something to be eliminated. Under strong suppression on this island, the patients resisted first by escaping this island. However, in 1937, some patients tried to kill a Korean staff but failed. Attempted murderers were all put in the jail, also located on this island. In 1941, a patient murdered another patient who had harassed other patients, and in 1942, Chunsang Lee, a patient, killed the director of Sorok island. These instances show that there was a system to eliminate Hansen's disease patients in colonial Korea.


colonial Korea; Hansen's disease; Hansen's disease patient; suicide; murder; cannibalism; Sorok island
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