Philip Jaisohn

While researching one topic for this blog, I almost always come up with additional topics to share. That’s how this post came to be. Philip Jaisohn’s name came up while I was researching Korean American Day, and I thought his story was too interesting not to share.

The name Philip Jaisohn, or 서재필 (Seo Jae-pil), probably doesn’t ring any bells for most of you so you may be wondering why he’s important. Well, he’s important because in 1890 he was the first Korean to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

This statue of Jaisohn stands outside the South Korean Embassy in Washington, DC

Born on January 7, 1864 in Boseong County, Korea, Jae-pil had a bright future. He passed the civil service examine at age 18, one of the youngest to ever pass the exam, and a year later was sent to study in Japan. But only two years after beginning his career in government, Jae-pil, was involved in the Kapsin Coup, an attempt by reformist leader Kim Okgyun to establish equality among Korea’s people. Jae-pil was appointed vice minister of defense under the new government, but the coup was squashed on three days later when the China intervened.

Jae-pil was convicted of treason, and had to leave Korea to save his own life. That’s how his exile to the United States came to be.

Once here, Jae-pil continued his education and began using the name Philip Jaisohn. Two years after obtaining his citizenship, he was the first Korean to receive an American medical degree when he graduated from George Washington University. Then in 1894 he married Muriel Armstrong, who was the niece of former president James Buchanan and the daughter of the U.S. Postmaster General. The couple had two daughters. 

After his crime of treason was pardoned in Korea, Jaisohn returned to Korea in 1895. While there, he started a newspaper, The Independent, to help inform Korean citizens about their government and politics. He also started the Independence Club, which organized an open public forum to debate political issues. He talked about the importance of public education and modern industry.

But the messages weren’t what the political conversations in Korea wanted to hear. They accused Jaisohn and his Independence Club of trying to replace the monarchy with a republic, and asked him to leave Korea in 1898.

Back in the U.S., Jaisohn did medical research and started a printing business. But his passion was Korea’s independence, which he continued to work for from his home in Pennsylvania. He was able to return to Korea after its liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945, but he returned to the U.S. in 1948 and died in Pennsylvania in 1951.

Jaisohn Home in Media, Pennsylvania

The home where Jaisohn lived for more than 25 years is open to the public. The house is located at 100 East Lincoln Street in Media, Pennsylvania. I found a 2006 thesis written on the house and its historic interpretation here: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=hp_theses. It has some interesting information, if you’re interested.

And Wikipedia has a detailed time line of Jaisohn’s life. You’ll find it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seo_Jae-pil.

I find Jaisohn’s story fascinating and now want to learn more. But that’s me, a curious lover of history.

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