Yale School of Nursing, Yale University's Graduate Nursing Programs

Yale School of Nursing

Richard Selzer Relives Years as Korean War Doctor

September 1, 2009

Richard Selzer.On September 24, YSN hosted a book reading and signing for Richard Selzer, a former surgeon and Yale School of Medicine professor. Selzer was invited by Yale Assistant Professor Linda Pellico, who encourages students to write about their experiences as nurses. Selzer is a judge for YSN's annual Creative Writing Awards and was the event's first keynote speaker in 2004.

Selzer read from his novel, Knife Song Korea, based on his experiences during the Korean War. He served from 1955-57 and kept a journal of his life as a young doctor there. Now 81 years old, Selzer said, "I was in the middle of my residency and had just met my future wife when I was drafted." Selzer married quickly in his in-laws' apartment and spent the subsequent two years away at war.

Once in Korea, Selzer found that the American soldiers were all in good health, while the surrounding villagers were very ill. He received permission to treat Korean civilians, and soon a line formed up the hill to his quonset hut. Selzer had little medical experience and worked for two years with no interpreter, nurse, or anesthetist. He decided to keep a journal to maintain his mental health.

Upon returning to the US, Selzer said he put the entire experience out of his mind. He forgot about those writings until 55 years later, when they were discovered in his attic, reawakening those memories. 

Selzer and YSN students.

In the meantime, he had retired from surgery and become known as a novelist.

Reading from the novel, Selzer described his efforts to communicate with the impoverished rural Koreans who came to see him. He memorized useful phrases such as, "Where does it hurt?" as the beginning of a diagnosis for diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. He said, "it was often like shaking a box to guess what lay inside."

Answering questions from the audience, Selzer said that he returned to Yale to complete his medical training, bringing with him the compassion he learned during the war. With hindsight, he now believes those two years were his most profound experience as a physician. He was decorated by the Korean government for his work, but says he was just happy to have done the work and to have survived. Selzer is still called upon by the University to greet visiting Korean scholars.