Korean J Med Hist.  2019 Aug;28(2):551-590. 10.13081/kjmh.2019.28.551.

Doctors Discussing “the Root of Koreans”: Medical Genetics and the Korean Origin, 1975–1987

  • 1Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, Germany. jhyun@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de


Anthropological genetics emerged as a new discipline to investigate the origin of human species in the second half of the twentieth century. Using the genetic database of blood groups and other protein polymorphisms, anthropological geneticists started redrawing the ancient migratory history of human populations. A peculiarity of the Korean experience is that clinical physicians were the first experts using genetic data to theorize the historical origin of the respective population. This paper examines how South Korean physicians produced the genetic knowledge and discourse of the Korean origin in the 1970s and 1980s. It argues that transnational scientific exchange led clinical researchers to engage in global anthropological studies. The paper focuses on two scientific cooperative cases in medical genetics at the time: the West German-South Korean pharmacogenetic research on the Korean population and the Asia-Oceania Histocompatibility Workshop. At the outset, physicians introduced medical genetics into their laboratory for clinical applications. Involved in cooperative projects on investigating anthropological implications of their clinical work, medical researchers came to use their genetic data for studying the Korean origin. In the process, physicians simply followed a nationalist narrative of the Korean origin rather than criticizing it. This was partially due to their lack of serious interest in anthropological work. Their explanations about the Korean origin would be considered “scientific” while hiding their embracing of the nationalist narrative.


medical genetics; anthropological genetics; genetic tests; the Korean origin; transnational scientific exchange
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