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The Salem Professor and the Korean Student

There's a reason he came to Salem

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In the fall of 1883, people in Salem, Mass., might have noticed a young Asian man dressed in Western clothing walking about the city. The man was Yu Kil-Chun, a 27-year-old Korean student.

He had come to Salem to study under the renowned naturalist Edward S. Morse of the Peabody Academy of Science, today’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).  After his preparation in Salem, Yu would attend Dummer Academy (today’s The Governor’s Academy) in Byfield, and eventually enter Harvard.

Yu Kil-Chun America’s first Korean student

It was a long road that brought Yu to Salem, the first Korean to study in the United States.

Yu Kil-Chun, the First Korean Student

Yu was born into a noble family in Korea in 1856.  He studied Chinese classics as a young man and later developed an interest in Western culture and politics.  He was a Progressive, favoring expanding ties with Japan and the West.

In 1882, while studying in Tokyo at the school of Japanese philosopher and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, Yu met Edward Morse, then a professor at Tokyo Imperial University.  The following year, the Korean king, Kojong, dispatched a delegation to the United States after the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Friendship between the two countries. Yu was a junior member of that delegation.

The Korean delegation. Yu is in the center, back row

The Koreans generated great interest during their visit to the United States.  On Sept. 18, 1883, the delegation met with President Chester Arthur in New York, an event covered widely in the press.  The New York Times reported that Yu Kil-chun, dressed in Western clothing, got lost while out for a walk.  His English was good enough to ask for directions back to his hotel.

During a week-long visit to Boston, the members met the governor and mayor. They later visited textile mills in Lowell.

When the Korean diplomats returned to their country in November 1883, Yu stayed behind expressly to study with Morse.

Edward S. Morse

Edward S. Morse

Morse was born in Portland, Maine in 1838. Despite a limited formal education, he was a gifted draftsman. He developed an early interest in natural science, especially the study of shells. His growing reputation as a scholar and shell collector led him to the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, where he studied under Louis Agassiz.  Like Agassiz, he opposed Darwinism on theological grounds, but later became a strong advocate of evolution.  Morse’s greatest contribution to science was his discovery that brachiopods, small marine shellfish, are not mollusks. Rather, they are worms. The discovery drew praise from Darwin himself and gave Morse an international reputation.

Morse came to Salem in 1866, as curator of Mollusks as the Essex Institute. Later he was appointed to the faculty at Bowdoin College.

Fukuzawa Yukichi

Starting in the 1870s, Morse made three trips to Japan to study brachiopods.  During his time there he grew to love the country and its culture, particularly Japanese pottery.  While in Japan he became Professor and Chair of Zoology at Tokyo Imperial University. There he mentored Japan’s first generation of scientists and introduced Darwinism.   He probably met Yu at Fukuzawa Yukichi’s school where Yu Kil-Chun was one of two Korean students studying there.  He met other Koreans in Japan as well. Although he never visited Korea, he maintained a life-long interest in the country.

In 1880, he was named director of the Peabody Academy of Science, a post he would hold until his death in 1926, the last 10 years as director-emeritus.

A Korean Student in Salem

Yu arrived in Salem in early November 1883 and remained there until the following June. By the time of Yu’s residence, Asians were becoming a more familiar sight in Salem.  Two Chinese laundries were in operation in Salem at that point, and the Salem City Directory for 1884 lists Joseph Ah-Chung, a currier (leather worker) living at the rear of 10 Vale Street.

Yu lived initially in Morse’s house on 12 Linden Street, and later at Mrs. Batchelder’s boarding House at 33 Summer Street.  The Linden Street home is still there, but the boarding house, located at the site of today’s Holyoke Square, is long gone.  Both locations are a short walk to the PEM on Essex Street.

East India Marine Hall, now part of the Peabody-Essex Museum

Yu became friends with Morse’s children, John and Edith, and with Margarette Brooks, Morse’s longtime secretary, herself a collector of shells from Salem’s beaches.

Yu probably spent time in Salem studying with Morse, improving his English and preparing for the courses he would likely encounter at Dummer Academy.   In return, Yu taught Morse about Korea.

Morse must have been an inspiring teacher.  He had experience teaching Japanese students in Tokyo, and earlier made successful tours on the lyceum circuit promoting evolution and Darwinism. He entertained audiences with his blackboard sketches of plants and animals drawn ambidextrously as he was lecturing.  Morse was an authority on natural history, zoology, archaeology and Japanese pottery.

Yu lived in Essex, Mass., during the summer prior to his enrollment at Dummer Academy, possibly staying with the Choate family at their ancestral home on Choate Island.  Two of Yu’s Academy classmates were Salem cousins Francis Bradford Choate and William Cogswell, Jr., the son of the former mayor of Salem.  It is highly likely that Morse knew both families well.

In August, Yu accompanied Morse and his son John to Mount Desert Island Maine, where The Boston Globe reported he attracted much attention.

Before leaving Salem, Yu had his photograph taken at the well-known A.B. Cross Photography Studio at 256 ½ Essex Street.

Governor Dummer Academy

Yu entered Dummer Academy in September 1884, a prestigious preparatory school for young men about 20 miles north of Salem. He was one of 40 students.  The headmaster, James Wright Perkins, former principal of Salem High School, was aided by three assistants and a music instructor. They taught a six-year curriculum with a strong emphasis on mathematics, Latin, Greek and writing.   Its 330 acres were “… well adapted for the enjoyments of country life and rural sports and pastimes.”

Dummer Academy in 1900. Yu, the first Korean student, studied there

Yu excelled in his studies, boasting to Morse of high test scores in physical geography and arithmetic.

The Academy had a strong Salem connection in those days.  The Hon. William Dummer Northend, a long-serving member of the Salem school committee, was vice president of trustees, and Hon. George F. Choate, a probate judge and Yu’s neighbor on Summer Street, was also on the Board.

Yu liked his classmates, although he was at least 10 years older than most of them, and he thanked Morse for putting him under the care of Mr. Perkins.  We do not know if he lived with the principal or with the students. Letters to Morse show he looked forward to weekend visits to Salem.

As the end of his second term at Dummer Academy approached in late March 1885, he wrote saying he would come home [to Salem] and bring his books.

Abrupt Return to Korea

In December 1884 or January 1885, Yu received word of the Kapsin Coup. It was an attempt by pro Japanese Progressives, of which Yu was a member, to take over the Korean government from the Conservative forces that had the ear of the king.  The coup attempt failed.  Yu was alarmed enough to make a journey to New York by himself to confer with Everett Frazer, honorary Korean Consul to the United States. After meeting with Frazer, Yu returned to Dummer.

At some point during his third term at Dummer in the spring of 1885, Yu abruptly decided to return home, a decision so abrupt that he didn’t even have time to say goodbye to Morse and his family.

Morse and Yu would never see each other again.

King Kojong, 1884

When he arrived in Korea, he was placed under house arrest for seven years. During that period he wrote a highly influential book, Soyu Kyonmun (What I Saw and Heard during My Journey to the West). He also translated several Western books into Korean. As a Progressive, he promoted ideas of government like those he had seen in Japan and the West, but within a Korean context.   He was eventually brought back into the government briefly, but then forced into exile for 12 years in Japan.  He lived the last seven years of his life in Korea, where he died in 1914, a champion of Korean independence embittered by the Japanese annexation of his native country.

In his later letters to Morse, written while in exile in Japan, he often asked after his old friends in the Choate family, showing how strong those old school ties were. But most fitting, in the last known letter Yu wrote to Morse, dated June 7, 1897, he ended “Please give my kindest regards to all of your family, my old friends in Salem.”

End Notes

IMAGES: Yu Kil-chun, Author Unknown. {{PD-US}}; Edward S. Morse, 1878, from Popular Science Monthly. Author not stated. {{PD-US}}; Korean Mission, 1883, from Collection of the American Geographic Society. Retrieved from the Library of Congress www.loc.gov/item/2021670695. King Kojong,1884 by Percival Lowell. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. {{PD-US}}. East India Marine Hall c. 1910. Detroit Publishing Company Collection. Retrieved from Library of Congress  www.loc.gov/item/2016810315/. Governor Dummer Academy c. 1900. Image provided by The Governor’s Academy Archives. Governor’s Academy By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21546615.

SOURCES: Salem City Directory, 1884.

Governor Dummer Academy, Catalogue 1884-85.

Yu Kil-chun Correspondence, Edward S. Morse Papers, Phillips Library, PEM.

“Salem and a Korea Student,” by Lee Kwang-rin, Phillips Library, PEM. 

“’A Son-Like Duty and Affection’: Edward S. Morse’s Influence on Yu Kil-chun and Korea’s Enlightenment,” by James F. Lee (unpublished manuscript).



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