Professors Honor Korean Studies Pioneer

Professors in the field commemorate Wagner’s contributions with lecture

Unnamed photo
Kanyinsola Z. Aibana

Professor Sun Joo Kim details the legacy and the work of Professor Edward W. Wagner ’49—a Korean studies pioneer—for the Korea Institute yesterday.

To honor the 50th anniversary of the appointment of Korean studies pioneer Edward W. Wagner ’49 at Harvard, Korean history professor Sun Joo Kim delivered a lecture yesterday about his lasting impact on Korean studies.

The commemoration occurs at a “very exciting time” of continued growth in the previously unrecognized and undeveloped field of Korean studies, said Kim, who added that the field has only seen real growth in the last 15 years.

“Fifty years later, it’s really significant for all of us in Korean studies to remember in essence where we came from, how Korean studies was established, and how far we’ve come in that time,” said Susan L. Laurence, assistant director of the Korea Institute, which Wagner founded.

Drafted for World War II his sophomore year at Harvard, Wagner headed to Seoul where he worked with a U.S. military government aiming to transition South Korea back into independence.

With a newfound interest in Korea, Wagner returned to Harvard to finish his Bachelor’s degree before earning a Masters degree in 1951, and a Ph.D. in History and East Asian languages in 1959. He began teaching at Harvard in 1958.

Kim spoke about Wagner’s research—specifically his creation of the Munkwa Project—and his influence on her own research in the field.

The Munkwa Project is a computerized database of Koreans who passed citizen service examinations during the Chosun period, which spanned from 1392 to 1910. Today, the database—which Kim called an important record of the Chosun elite group—includes the genealogy and social status of around 80,000 people as of March 2007, according to the Harvard Gazette.

Wagner oversaw numerous Ph.D.s in Korean history during his 35-year professorship at Harvard, at the time the only American university that produced doctoral degrees for Korean studies, according to Kim.

Some of these newly minted scholars would go on to establish Korean studies programs in their respective universities. In fact, Kim trained under one of his former students.

“I am an intellectual granddaughter of Professor Wagner’s,” said Kim, who received tenure last summer. She is now one of three tenured Harvard faculty who specifically focus on Korean studies, she said.

“His personal scholarship has become the model for history in the field of Korean studies,” Kim said. “Without him, we couldn’t possibly think of the present state of Korean studies in universities.”

Namhi K. Wagner, donning yellowtinted glasses as she sat in the front row at the lecture, said the commemorative event for her husband evoked both sadness and pleasant “surprise.”

Wagner said she remembered her husband flipping through stale pages, scribbling notations into his research books for the instruction of future readers.

But a debilitating case of Alzheimer’s during the time of his retirement prevented the “perfectionist” Wagner from fulfilling his teaching duties, she said.

“He could have done so much more even after he retired,” she said. “He always had future scholars in his mind.”

In 2001, Wagner died of pneumonia and other complications from Alzheimer’s. He was 77.

In a Harvard Gazette article published at the time of his death, Wagner said that his interest in the region was piqued by his interaction with Koreans during his time in that country.

“I was very taken with the Korean people. They were extraordinarily kind and very interesting,” Wagner said in a 1993 interview. “Of course, considering the state that the country was in at that time, the people were really the only positive aspect to being there.”

—Staff Writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at