Woo Jang-choon in his forties.
Woo Jang-choon (1898-1959), a renowned Korean-Japanese agricultural scientist and botanist, had been born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. Even though he faced institutional discrimination baring his advance in the department of agriculture in Japan, Woo served as mentor to many Japanese scientists who continued to high positions in the department. Woo moved to Korea after liberation from Japan in 1945, dedicating himself to agricultural research and development, in which he made notable advances until his death in 1959. Busan, a port city in southern Korea where Woo dedicated his life's work, established a museum in honor of his life and work.
Woo Jang-choon was born at a difficult time in Korean history, at the end of the Joseon dynasty as Japan, Russia, and China sought to control the Korean Peninsula. At the end of its dynastic cycle, Korea had little strength to resist the imperial designs of its neighbors. Woo Jang-choon's father, Woo Baum-saun, had belonged to the Progressive Movement in Korea at the end of the nineteenth century which sought to strengthen Korea by following Japan's advances during the Meiji Restoration. Woo Baum-saun participated in a failed coup, the Eulmi Incident, forcing him to flee with his family to Japan for protection. Woo Jang-choon, raised as a second generation Korean in Japan, attained prominence in the field of agriculture and botany in spite of his second class citizenship and the poverty of a single parent family. He returned to Korea after the defeat of Japan in World War II, dedicating his life to helping his motherland through the Korean War (1950-1953) and the first years of the Republic of Korea.
Woo Jang-choon was born April 8, 1898, to a Korean father, Woo Baum-saun (우범선, 禹範善), and a Japanese mother, Sakai Naka. His father, Woo Beom-seon, had been a leading general in the Byeolgigun, the first westernized special forces unit in Joseon's army, and had sought political asylum in Japan after he was involved in the in the Eulmi Incident—the assassination of Korea's Queen Min in 1895. The assassination is believed to have been planned by the Japanese in response to Queen Min's anti-Japanese policies. Many details remain unknown, but it seems clear that there was cooperation between the Japanese assassins and the Queen's security forces. As a leader of those security forces, Woo Bum-Saun was in danger of being killed in retaliation if he remained in Korea.
Woo Bum-saun was not safe in Japan either. He was assassinated by Go Young-geun, and his son, Jang-choon, then five years old, was left fatherless. Several months later, Woo's younger brother was born. Woo suffered from mistreatments common to fatherless children. Sakai Naka left Woo in the care of an orphanage in a Buddhist temple temporarily in order to make a living. Life in the orphanage was difficult. Food was in short supply, and Woo was teased by the other children because he was a Korean. After about one year in the orphanage, Woo returned to living with his mother.
In elementary school, he studied very hard to earn respect from the other students and avoid mistreatment. In August 1910, when Korea was annexed by Japan, Woo was twelve years old. He continued his schooling, earning superior academic averages in middle school. Many talented male students enlisted in the military, but Woo continued with school. To meet his financial needs, his mother sold all of their possessions—even the tomb of Woo’s father. Although everybody around her told to she was begin discourteous to the soul of her departed husband, she believed that this is what Woo Bum-saun would have wished. A friend helped her to make arrangements to bury her husband in another cemetery.
Although talented in math, Woo chose to study agriculture rather than engineering so that he would be eligible for a scholarship from the Japanese government. He began his college career at Tokyo University in 1916, and the university's professors such as Takeshima thought very highly of him. After graduation, Woo was hired into Japan's Ministry of Agriculture's research facility. In order to facilitate her son's social life, his mother taught him to be tolerant of alcohol, and Woo readily invited his friends over. By the age of 23, he had conducted research on morning glory flowers, and written a paper on the Triangle of U, presenting a new theory on the evolution of several members of the brassica genus, which includes such common vegetables as turnips, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
Woo served as a tutor to his neighbor's sons, and the neighbor introduced Woo to his sister, Koharu. They fell in love, but had difficulty in gaining permission for marriage from Koharu's parents. In the end, Koharu went against her parents' wishes and the two were married. In order to register the marriage with the Japanese authorities, it was necessary for Woo to adopt a Japanese name, so his marriage was registered under the name Sunaga Nagaharu (須永長春). Their first child was a daughter, Tomoko.
With fellow researcher Dr. Terao, Woo published two papers on petunia flowers. Then, Dr. Terao assigned Woo to study further on Petunia hybrida Vilm, which, among the different varieties of the species, could not be completely made into double flower. Half of the flowers would not grow when forced into double flower phenotype. Further work by Woo found a way to yield 100 percent double flowered Petunias in 1930, earning him international prestige in the scientific community.
Woo returned to studying morning glories, but his research notes were destroyed by fire when he was nearly finished with the research. Then he pursued the study of genotypes and phenotypes. He was assigned to create new crucifers through combination of different phenotypes. His four years of research led to a successful interbreeding of Japanese and Korean crucifers, and another internationally renowned paper. Tokyo University awarded Woo a doctoral degree in recognition of his groundbreaking work. A significant observation in Dr. Woo's paper was that evolution occurs not only through buildup of beneficial mutations leading to speciation, but also through the exchange of genes between different species.
Many Japanese agricultural study graduates came to study under Dr. Woo, and at first were overwhelmed by the quantity of painstaking work needed in the research. After working with Woo, all of them continued to advance up the ranks; Dr. Woo, however, remained stuck in the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture's research facility because of the Japanese policy that did not allow for promotion of Korean residents to high status positions. Woo's insistence on using his Korean name rather than his Japanese name contributed to his failure to advance, and when he was finally offered a promotion, on the condition that he use his Japanese name, he chose to leave the post rather than change his name. By the time he left the Ministry of Agriculture, he had written more than 20 papers under the name Woo Jang-choon.
Woo was hired into the Takiyi research farm, where he improved on seed production method, and agricultural food products through artificial selection. While he concentrated on establishing a solid base for the resources needed for research, he wrote a paper on artificial fertilization to improve the quality of the plants. During this time his family increased to four daughters and two sons. Near the end of the World War II, the Takiyi research farm ran a free educational program for students, and Dr. Woo was the lecturer for Korean students, and was fortunate in not being drafted into the Japanese army; as Japan began to lose the war, many Koreans were forcibly drafted into the army.
With Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea gained its independence; Dr. Woo resigned from his positions at the Takiyi research farm and Tokyo University, and prepared his own research farm near a Buddhist temple. Throughout the Japanese occupation of Korea, Korean farmers had relied on Japan as a source for seeds for their crops. Japan had discouraged Koreans from developing their own sources of seeds, both to prevent the Koreans from increasing their technological knowledge and, and to make money by selling their own seeds to Korea at a good profit. After the war, trade between Korea and Japan ceased, and the Korean farmers were left without a good source of seeds.
Woo Jang-choon's accomplishments in the field of seed production were known in Korea and efforts were made to invite him to work in Korea to assist the Korean farmers. The Korean Agricultural Scientific Research Institute (한국 농업 과학 연구) was established near Busan and Korean president Syngman Rhee, invited Woo to come work in Korea. Unfortunately, as a Japanese citizen, Dr. Woo was not allowed to leave Japan for Korea. Therefore, he recalled his papers tracing his ancestral lineage from Korea, and went to a Japanese office that searched for illegal Korean immigrants living in Japan. The employees were shocked that a world renowned scientist would voluntarily bring himself to the office.
Finally, in March 1950, he received permission to travel to Korea and was welcomed to the country with a banner reading "Welcome! Dr. Woo Jang-choon's return home." (환영! 우장춘 박사 귀국.) A few days later, a welcome ceremony was held in Dong-Rae Won-Eh High School, and Dr. Woo delivered a speech: "I have worked for my mother's country, Japan, for fifty years. During those years, I worked for Japan no less than any other Japanese. From now on, I will invest all my effort to work for my father's country, my home country. And I will bury my bones in my home country."
Taking a fact-finding trip around the country, Dr. Woo observed the poor conditions of the farms, and concluded that mass production of seeds was imperative. In addition to these desperate circumstances, the Korean War began only three months after Dr. Woo's arrival to Korea. Luckily, Busan was spared of major conflicts, and Dr. Woo's work continued uninterrupted. Because the supply of insecticides available to Korean farmers was very limited, he concentrated on producing seeds that were less susceptible to pests. Though his research was focused on creating seeds for food crops, Dr. Woo did not neglect planting flowers, the institute became filled with countless beautiful flowers, and many visitors came by to enjoy the scenery.
Once, an American colonel made a visit to the institute, and saw a double flower Petunia. He quizzed an employee on the inventor of the flower. When the employee pretended to be ignorant on the subject, the colonel said that it was a Japanese scientist named Dr. Woo. When he discovered, to his surprise, that the very same Dr. Woo was not Japanese after all but Korean, and moreover, was working at the same institute, the colonel returned with gifts to meet Dr. Woo. Later, the Korean Agricultural Science Research Institute was renamed Central Agricultural Technology Research Institute (Joongang Wonyeh Gisulwon, 중앙 원예 기술원).
Dr. Woo received a letter from his wife about his mother's poor health and requested the president to allow him to visit Japan but was not allowed. Eventually, Dr. Woo's mother died, and Dr. Woo regretted that he had not been able to repay his mother for all she had done. This made it into the news, and letters and donations come to him from all over the country. As a memorial to his mother and to support the work of the institute, Dr. Woo had a water well dug near his laboratory, and named it "Jayucheon" (자유천, short for 자애로운 어머니의 젖) or "The Milk of Deeply Loving Mother."
From the late 1950s, Dr. Woo developed chronic neuralgia in his arm, and medical treatments did little to relieve the pain. Corisosn did help relieve the pain, but had a serious effect on his digestive system. By June of 1959, his condition was further complicated by the development of diabetes, and he was admitted to the hospital, expecting to be discharged within a month after the diabetes was brought under control. His wife, Koharu, was still living in Japan and had not yet received permission to travel to Korea.
The employees at the research institute were taking turns visiting Dr. Woo, and it was the day for the student assigned to the rice plant to visit. Dr. Woo said, "Welcome. How are the rice plants doing? Did you bring one?" Therefore, the student called the employees in Pusan to immediately bring the rice plant to Seoul. At the sight of the rice plant, Dr. Woo said, "It grew well. Put it where I can see it easily." It was put inside a clear vinyl bag and hung.
Although he had expected to be discharged from the hospital within one month, the problems worsened, and the research employees contacted Dr. Woo's wife Koharu about his medical condition, and she finally got special permission to visit Korea. When they met, they were overwhelmed by emotion. Dr. Woo promised that they would be able to live together within two to three years, and tried to look healthy.
At the same time, the Korean government officially acknowledged Dr. Woo's achievements, and the minister of the agricultural department presented himself at the hospital to award Dr. Woo a medal. To his wife and research employees, Dr. Woo said, "I can die without any regrets. My motherland has acknowledged me." On the dawn of August 10, 1959, Dr. Woo submitted to his fate. He was sixty-two years old. His death was national news, and people across the country mourned his death.
For a country not self-sufficient in producing crops to sustain and feed the country's population, the most crucial requirement was the development of top quality seeds to improve crop production. Woo Jang-choon's work resulted in improved seeds for for many of Korea's staple crops, starting with Chinese cabbage, the icicle radish, hot peppers, cucumbers, head cabbage, onions, tomatoes, watermelon, the yellow chamui melon. Other major horticultural breakthroughs from Woo's research included germ-resistant seed potatoes, the seedless watermelon, and the Jeju variety of tangerine (제주감귤).
Since the condition of agricultural production affects everyone, it is no exaggeration to say that life in Korea during the 1950s and 1960s would have followed quite a different course without the contributions of Dr. Woo. It is hard to measure the extent of the significance of his contribution to Korea's development.
Many crucial decisions during the 1950s were made according to Dr. Woo's suggestions or made by Dr. Woo himself. Such included the planting of cosmos flowers to decorate the highways and railroads. Cosmos flowers disseminate easily, and would not be targeted by farmers to feed the livestocks because they are toxic in nature. One area in which Dr. Woo was not able to convince people to follow his recommendations was in the field hydroponics, growing crops without soil. A hydroponics facility was constructed in Suwon, but the outcome was poor. The president suggested sending researchers to Japan to learn the secrets of hydroponics, but Dr. Woo insisted that the key to successful hydroponics was clean water. At the time, water purification and sanitary systems in the country were largely undeveloped, and people had a hard time believing the solution could be so simple. Dr. Woo's staff constructed and operated a hydroponics facility in Seoul using sanitary water and were very successful in supplying fruits and vegetables to the U.S. military
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