Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: Naval Surgeon in Yi Korea: The Journal of George W. Woods

Title: Naval Surgeon in Yi Korea: The Journal of George W. Woods
Author: Fred C. Bohm & Robert R. Swartout, Jr.
Paperback: 138 pages
Publisher: Institute of East Asian Studies
ISBN-13: 9780912966687

Of all the Westerners who passed through Korea after it cautiously (albeit officially) opened its doors in the late 19th century, one would be hard pressed to find a more learned individual with a penchant for detail. Enter 46-year-old U.S. Naval surgeon George W. Woods, a career officer who eventually rose to the highest medical rank the Navy bestows. Woods kept an impeccable journal of his several month stay in and around Seoul in 1884 while serving aboard the USS Juniata.

What makes the annotated transcription of Woods' journal so significant, apart from his prosaic depictions of Korean life, is that his sojourn occurred before notable missionaries like Henry Appenzeller, Horace Newton Allen, and Horace Grant Underwood arrived and established themselves. In fact, Woods arrived less than a year after Lucious Foote, the American envoy, took up official residence in Seoul. Few others can claim such a distinction.

The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" is especially accurate here. The cover of this 1984 publication is admittedly atrocious but the over twenty full page photograph reproductions admirably complement Woods' accessibly detailed and optimistically objective account. A lot of the characteristic air of superiority that was common of the time is refreshingly absent. We are quite fortunate that the editors, Bohm and Swartout, preserved and compiled this historically significant journal. If you can still find a copy, it's worth the trouble.


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