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Life and Times of a Norwegian Nurse in Korea
Annie P. Jacobsen, who died and was buried in Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery, Seoul, January 1897
Robert Neff (Neff)     Print Article 
Published 2009-04-29 12:37 (KST)   
This is another in a series of articles about early Westerners in Korea by historian Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
A church on the island of Nottero, near the town of Sousberg, Norway, where Annie Jacobsen was born in 1866.
©2009 Algkalv
One of the first Norwegians in Korea, and the earliest to be buried here, was Annie P. Jacobsen (often spelled Jacobson), a young nurse whose past is relatively unknown and only remembered with a small plain stone in the Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery. Annie's life was one of hardship and sacrifices brought upon her by her extreme religious devotion.

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Annie was born April 18, 1866, on the island of Nottero, near the town of Sousberg, Norway. With the passing of time, Sousberg has disappeared from the map, but was most likely a large village of fishermen and farmers. Annie grew up in a large family. Her father, a baker, appears to have made a good living and had several employees working for him. Not only was he successful, he was also very conservative and domineering. Like most of the population, Annie's father was Lutheran, and he demanded that his entire family follow his faith, thus, at a young age, Annie was forced to become a member of the Lutheran Church. It was not her wish.

Annie was troubled by attending the Lutheran Church because it violated her own personal beliefs, and she was obviously afraid of her father's wraith, but, while still young, she summoned the strength to declare that she would no longer attend the Lutheran services and instead switched to the Presbyterian Church. "After a long hard struggle, she found Christ and the forgiveness she craved." (The Independent, Jan. 28, 1897)

While still a young teenager, she became engaged to marry a young Lutheran boy. Unfortunately, Annie left no diary, but apparently from the conversations she had with her friends in Seoul, the marriage was not one of her choosing. "Feeling that she could not conscientiously marry an unbeliever her engagement was broken." This broken engagement further infuriated her father who cast her from his house without means at the tender age of 15.

Annie managed to find employment as a maid, and appears to have saved up enough money that she was eventually, probably sometime in the early 1880s, able to leave Norway and make her way to Portland, Maine, in the United States. In Portland, she again found employment as a maid, but it was her dream to save up enough money so that she could attend a nursing school.

Maine General Hospital Training School for Nurses was established in the 1880s in Portland. Its first class of seven women (10 started but three were unable to complete the course) graduated in 1887, and were gainfully employed almost immediately afterwards. Sometime in the early 1890s, Annie, who had worked for three years as a maid in Portland, managed to save up enough money to enroll in the prestigious school. Despite her poor English, she was able to keep up with, and often surpass, her fellow students - all native English speakers.

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While attending school, Annie was active in the Presbyterian community, and often heard stories of missionaries in far away lands. These stories inspired her to apply for a position as a missionary which was accepted the year before her graduation. Much to her pleasure, the Presbyterian Church assigned her a position in Korea as the assistant to Dr. Oliver R. Avison. Many of the doctors at Maine General Hospital tried to discourage her from leaving. They assured her of ample employment opportunities in Portland, but she politely turned down their offers and insisted that she wanted to be a missionary.

She arrived in Korea in the summer of 1895 and, along with Victoria Arbunkle (who had arrived several years earlier) was assigned to work at the Government Hospital in Seoul. Things at the hospital were far different from those in Maine. The hospital in Seoul lacked medicines, antisepsis, and medical equipment, but Annie went about her tasks in a tireless and uncomplaining manner. She improved upon the sanitary conditions of the hospital, trained several younger nurses, and generally made the hospital run more efficiently. Annie also studied Korean, and was a very apt student who quickly excelled at the language. Using her knowledge of the language she also did some evangelical work amongst the Koreans.

Despite her positive nature, there were some things that she could not improve, and these eventually led to her death. She and Victoria were given quarters in the hospital - quarters that the American Minister to Korea, Horace Allen, described as "unsanitary." (Horace N. Allen to Dr. Ellinwood, July 10, 1898, Allen Archives ) Allen asserted that the Western doctors in charge of these young nurses were negligent with their young charges. "Any old place seems good enough for them" noted Allen and that "the Dr. in charge would not have placed his [own] family in" the quarters he provided for the nurses. (Horace N. Allen to Dr. Ellinwood, July 10, 1898, Allen Archives ) So severe were the conditions that Victoria soon "became a physical wreck and had to leave." (Horace N. Allen to Dr. Ellinwood, July 10, 1898, Allen Archives ) She returned to the United States in late 1895.

Annie continued to persevere uncomplainingly, but by August 1896, the strain had become too much for her body to bear and she soon developed serious health problems. Instead of resting and regaining her health, she was compelled to work because of the number of patients. Not only was she caring for Korean patients, but her fellow married Westerners as well. Allen claimed that "no matter what work they [the young unmarried Western nurses] may be assigned, they are expected to throw it up at once and come to the assistance of the married folks." (Horace N. Allen to Dr. Ellinwood, July 10, 1898, Allen Archives)

Throughout the fall of 1896 Annie's health continued to deteriorate. By early January 1897, it was discovered that she had an abscess in her liver and that unless treatment was started immediately she would die. On Jan. 7, her liver was aspirated by Dr. C. C. Vinton and a considerable amount of pus was removed, much to her relief, but she continued to worsen. Four days later, Dr. Vinton and Dr. Avison operated and washed out the abscessed part of her liver. It appeared to have been a success and all were hopeful that she would make a complete recovery, but it was not to be. Early in the morning of Jan. 20 she suddenly worsened and within a few hours died.

Annie Jacobsen's grave in Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery, Seoul.
©2009 Robert Neff
On Jan. 22, a funeral service was held and was attended by crowds of Westerners and Koreans alike. (The Independent, Jan. 23, 1897) Her coffin was beautifully decorated by colorful indoor flowers that contrasted greatly with the dismalness of winter and death. Her favorite hymns were sung both in Korean and English and her coffin was conveyed the five miles from Seoul to the cemetery by Korean Christians. The English-language newspaper The Independent, claimed it was "a work they [the Korean Christians] could not have been hired to do for the [Korean] royalty." (The Independent, Jan. 28, 1897)

Her obituary in the paper ended with a poignant poem:
Brief life was here her portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending;
The tearless life is there.
In happy retribution!
Short toil, eternal rest;
Forever and forever
In Mansions with the blest.

(The Independent, Jan. 28, 1897)

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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