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Contested Drugs: Controversy over Herbal Medicine between Western Pharmacists and Oriental Physicians

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This paper is about a historical and ethnographic account of controversy between practitioners of Western and Oriental medicine (OM) in South Korea over the right to prescribe herbal remedies. Since Western medicine (WM) was introduced into Korea, either through Christian missionaries or through the Japanese colonial agencies in the late nineteenth century, practitioners of both medical systems have periodically clashed over the boundaries of jurisdictional rights. The tension between the two professions became intense and conspicuous in the public arena when the Pharmaceutical Law governing the traditional type of herbal medicine cabinet at Western pharmacies was repealed in March 1993. The professional organizations associated with each of the two medical systems tried either to defend or to enlarge the jurisdictional boundaries of OM or WM, in order to secure economic profits by controlling the right to prescribe herbal medicines. OM practitioners, who wanted to preserve, recover, and restore their traditional medical practices, identified unique, peculiar qualities of OM practices and substances, and characterized them in an esoteric way. In contrast, pharmacists competing for a share of the herbal market attempted to prove that allegedly arcane OM knowledge could be understood in terms of the scientific language in which they wished to validate their claims. OM practitioners emphasized the incommensurability between OM and WM, whereas pharmacists insisted that the principles of OM could be translated into Western scientific language. Contentions over the commensurability of the two systems manifested in terms of conflicting interpretations of herbal medicines and the herbal medicine cabinet. The conflict views were resolved through the creation of new regulatory drugs, Oriental pharmaceuticals (Han Bang Je Je). In the paper, I focus on the evolving status of herbal medicines, with special attention to emergent regulatory Oriental pharmaceuticals.

This talk is part of the World History Workshop series.

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