Born Seo Jae-pil in Korea’s Bosung county in Jeolla province in 1864, his journey through political turmoil of Korea to the United States and back left an indelible legacy of dedication, service and activism. Supporting the ideals of independence and democracy for Korea, his life became an extraordinary story of many ‘firsts.’
He became the first naturalized Korean American, the first Korean American medical doctor and the first publisher to use Han’gul, the native Korean script invented by King Sejong, for the newspaper The Independence, the first bilingual newspaper in Korea. The Independence, first published in April 7, 1896, broke with then Korean tradition of publishing in only Chinese letters and paved a way for the modern Korean journalism. Printed in both Korean and English, the newspaper informed ordinary Koreans and the world of the news and events from Korea. Furthermore, He was the first person on record for an interracial matrimony between a Korean and an American, having married in 1894 to Muriel Armstrong, a socialite and niece of the 15th President of the United States James Buchanan, Jr. The couple later had two daughters.
So, what drove this man beyond these illustrious achievements? Dr. Jaisohn was a man deeply concerned with the cause of humanity and freedom, especially with Korea’s independence from Japan and progress toward modernization. Never losing his sight on this mission, he worked tireless until his death at age 87 in 1951. At the Rose Tree Park in Media, PA, a monument stands today as a tribute to his humanitarian spirit and dedication.
Dr. Jaisohn’s beloved Korea was a reclusive Confucius society under the influence of China’s Qing Dynasty in the 1800s. In this environment, precocious young Jae-pil stood out as an early adopter of modern political principles who believed in equality among Koreans.
Excelled as a student, he was sent to Japan in the early 1880s as part of the first group of Korean students to study at the Youth Military Academy in Tokyo. Once returned to his homeland at age 21, Jae-pil was full of hopes and eagerness to establish a modern foundation for Korea. He joined Gapsin coup led by Kim Okgyun, a radical revolt against its feudalistic government, which unfortunately failed in three days with China’s intervention. Convicted of treason, Jae-pil lost his family and property and saw the only way to save his life was to become an exile. He found his way to San Francisco via Japan.
Around this time of the late 18th to 19th centuries, Asia was engulfed in protectorate expansion fervor by competing Western governments seeking political and economic gain in the region. Japan, the first Asian nation to be modernized, was no exception to this expansion effort as the sole military power emerged from the Far East. In spite of the peace treaty signed with Korea in 1882, the United States made a secret deal with Japan over Korea in favor of protecting the Philippines from Japan’s further aggression. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910.
During this time of drastic political upheaval and changes in Korea and the Far East, Jae-pil arrived in the United States and took his Americanized name Philip Jaisohn. Jaisohn continued his studies with the support of various sponsors, including American industrialist John W. Hollenback, and pursued a medical degree at George Washington University, formerly known as Columbian Medical College, inspired by Dr. Walter Reed. He became the first Korean American medical doctor in 1892, two years after he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
At the time, Japan’s imperialistic Meiji government was campaigning hard to annex Korea following its victories over the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War. Realizing Korea’s vulnerability to colonizing efforts by the powers surrounding the peninsula, Dr. Jaisohn returned to Korea in 1896 and initiated several reform movements in social, political, economic and educational domains, including medical and health care initiatives.
From establishing the Independence Gate in Korea to the historic First Korean Congress in Philadelphia, Dr. Jaisohn organized and supported numerous entities and political activities for Korea’s political sovereignty and democracy, including the Korean Information Bureau, the League of Friends of Korea, and the monthly journal Korean Review, until he exhausted his own finances to bankruptcy in 1925.
Faithful and loyal to both his native and adopted countries, Dr. Jaisohn not only spent his life defending the freedom of those oppressed but also promoted equality among all people. From 1927 and on, he focused his work as a medical doctor in the United States serving as a pathologist and also as Chief Advisor for the U.S. Military government in South Korea at the end of World War II. His lifetime of devotion as a diplomat and medical officer in three U.S. Wars earned him high commendations from Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and the U.S. Congress in 1946.
Having witnessed the end of Japan’s occupation in Korea in 1945, Dr. Jaisohn returned to the United States in 1948 and died in 1951 after suffering from a heart attack during the Korean War. His remains were repatriated to South Korea and interred at the Korean National Cemetery in 1994.
Without a doubt, Dr. Philip Jaisohn was America’s greatest gift to Korea in the first half of the 20th century – as a founding father of Korea’s modernization and democracy, its future. For Korean Americans, he set an example to follow for generations to be conscientious of both Korean and American roots; embody the very best values they have inherited; and contribute to the betterment of both societies and the world at large by overcoming prejudice and striving to be of service for fellowmen. He was a true pioneer and patriot whose love of his countries, near and far, and dedication to humanitarian causes never waned.