Avison of Korea
Severance Union Medical  College 1917

Above is a photograph of the staff of the Serverance Union Medical
College of Seoul Korea in 1917.   In the centre of the front row 
is the founder  and President of the College, Dr. Oliver R. Avison of 
Yorkshire England, and Smiths Falls and Toronto, Ontario

   Oliver R. Avison was a remarkable person, inspired by devout Christianity, possessing rare skills for the Korea of a century ago, known as the father of modern medicine and medical education in Korea, and uniquely honoured today with statues at the University of Toronto and Yonsei University in Seoul Korea.  He spent almost fifty years to improve the quality of medicine in Korea.  He is a national hero in Korea and yet he is almost unknown in Canada.
    Oliver Avison was born in Yorkshire England in1860.  His parents emigrated to Canada in 1866, where his father soon became the superintendent of a woollen mill in Almonte Ontario.  Oliver worked for a short time in the mill, when his father decided that his son's talents would best be served with more education.  After graduating from Almonte High School, Oliver Avison became a Hutton Public Schoolteacher.  He taught for three years at Hutton Public School a few miles south of Smiths Falls, Ontario.  The stone school building is now a private residence on Line 1 of Kitley Township. He made two important decisions in his  years in Smiths Falls.
    After three years of teaching elementary school he considered returning to school to become a university teacher, but he came to realize that he was really not too enthusiastic about spending his life as a teacher.  A local drug store, owned by Dr. J.S. McCallum advertised for an apprentice.  Oliver applied and was hired.  After three years in the store, he enrolled at the Ontario College of Pharmacy, where after a further three years of study, he graduated with three gold medals and accepted a position as lecturer at the college.  He also began to pursue a career in medicine. 
   In 1887 he graduated with honours and was invited to join the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto.  At the university he helped found the Medical Students' YMCA the Medical Students' Mission.  At one point,  he was asked to organize a meeting of medical students for a visiting missionary trying to attract doctors to go to Korea, which was in the midst of a terrifying epidemic of cholera.  After the meeting when Dr. Avison and the speaker were trying to identify likely candidates, the visitor turned to his host and said, "What about you?".  In 1893, like Abraham of the Old Testament, and sponsored by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, Oliver Avison gladly went out into a country he knew not.
Traditional Korean medicine

     In Korea he soon learned the language, in part by translating medical textbooks into Korean, and organized the fight against the cholera epidemic by establishing isolation centres and ordering the printing of thousands of posters and pamphlets to explain that the water was unsafe unless boiled.  When the number of deaths began to subside, he became known throughout Korea as "The Man who had Stopped the Epidemic."  In his first few years in Korea, Dr. Avison found appalling needs for medical care everywhere, but little possibility for training doctors to meet the need. In 1900, while on furlough in North America, he was invited to speak at a conference of missions in New York.  One of the men in the audience was a steel millionaire from Cleveland, Louis H. Severance.  He was so impressed by Dr. Avison's address that he promised to fund the creation of a new hospital in Korea.  In April 1904 the Severance Hospital opened in Seoul Korea.  It became one of the best-equipped and most famous hospitals in all of Asia.
   The next step for Dr. Avison was to establish a medical college to begin to train Korean doctors and nurses.  Even before the Severance Hospital was opened, he had prepared a seven-year curriculum and started his first class.  The first class of seven graduated from the Severance Union Medical College in 1908 with full government qualifications for practice.  By the time of his retirement in 1932 Oliver Avison handed out diplomas to hundreds of doctors in 22 graduating classes.   The training of nurses was also initiated in the hospital in the Severance Nurses Training School program.  The work of Dr. Avison was known to almost every family  in Seoul and a fund was raised to build a large bronze statue of 

  Avision.  It was placed on the front lawn of the hospital but many  years later, in 1943, the statue was melted down by an invading Japanese army to provide metal for bullets.
   In 1924 Oliver Avison was invited to head the Chosun Christian College in Seoul that had been founded to train young Koreans in the arts and sciences.   During Avison's years in Korea,  the country suffered through two major wars, the abdication of the King,  whose attending physician Dr. Avison had been for fifteen years, and the eventual loss of sovereignty of the nation due to Japanese occupation in the early 1930's.  Under the Japanese all foreigners in Korea were told they were no longer welcome  and, in December 1935, Avison  had no choice but to leave the country that had been his home for almost fifty years.  Oliver Avison lived the last years of his life in retirement in St. Petersburg Florida, where he died on August 28, 1956 at the age of 96.
   Korean George Paik was his successor as President of the Severance Union Medical College, which evolved into present-day  Yonsei University. He wrote an introduction to Avison of Korea: The Life of Oliver R. Avison, M.D. by Allen DeGray Clark (Yonsei  University Press, 1979).  He describes his mentor  thus:
"He was a man of untiring energy and dedicated spirit.  He impressed his listeners with his dynamic personality . . . He was tolerant toward all, but was a disciplinarian in all organized behaviors . . . (He was) our energetic leader, who served his God by serving the Korean people."
    On June 30, 1966 a new statue of Dr. Oliver Avison was unveiled on the grounds of Yonsei University where it still stands.  But the more enduring monument to Oliver Avison's lifetime of medical work in Korea has been in the lives of the graduates of the two institutions over which he resided for so many years.
    In 1984 a large number of those graduates in Seoul requested permission to erect a memorial in Canada to three Canadian doctors who had devoted their lives and careers to the Korean people.  The memorial would be in the shape of a Buddhist pagoda that had traditionally been placed over the graves of beloved figures.  On October 19, 1985, a tall stone pagoda was placed on the lawn of Victoria University in Toronto to honour Dr. Stanley H. Martin of St. John's Nfld. and Dr. Florence J. Murray of Pictou NS, both of whom served for many years at Severance Hospital, and Dr. Oliver R. Avison, who was its founder.
    Much earlier I mentioned that Oliver Avison made two important decisions in Smiths Falls.  The first was to enter pharmacy, which started him on his long life in Korea.  The second, equally important decision for his life's work was to marry Jennie Barnes, a very attractive young woman, an excellent musician and the daughter of the local reeve.  Over their 51 years of marriage Oliver and Jennie Avison had ten children of whom eight survived infancy.
    During Oliver's sabbaticals every seven years and after his retirement, the Avisons traveled across North America visiting friends and family in both Canada and the United States, including Jenny's hometown of Smiths Falls. In the summer of 1936, while visiting friends in Cape Cod, Jennie fell ill and died on September 14 at the age of 74.  Her body was buried in a family plot in Hillcrest Cemetery in Smiths Falls. When Oliver died twenty years later in Florida, his body was cremated and his ashes were flown to Ottawa and interred beside his wife in a service on August 31, 1956,  a very hot summer day.   His tombstone incorrectly lists Korea Hillcrest Cemetery, Smiths Fallsas his birthplace and his name is misspelled as "Davison" on the chart in the cemetery office.

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Copyright (c) Douglas G. Phillips
This page last updated on November 29, 2000