Dr. Ella Campbell Scarlett: Tiger hunter and royal physician in Korea in 1900

Not all tigers were killed by men. Dr. Ella Campbell Scarlett was said to have killed at least a couple of tigers in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

Not all tigers were killed by men. Dr. Ella Campbell Scarlett was said to have killed at least a couple of tigers in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

By Robert Neff

In the fall of 1900, Seoul was temporarily graced by an intrepid English doctor named Ella Campbell Scarlett. Like many of these temporary presences in the Land of the Morning Calm, we know very little about her stay in Korea, but, judging from Horace N. Allen, the ever-cranky American minister to Korea, she was quite the character.

In a letter to his son, Allen excitedly declared that “the shooting now [between Seoul and Incheon] is excellent, plenty of pheasant, duck and geese.” I am not sure why Allen felt compelled to mention hunting as he rarely engaged in that activity, but it did inspire him to indulge in one of his favorite activities — gossiping.

“We have a new lady doctor here, an English woman, of rather particular qualifications. She is a great shot and can ‘skin a beast’ as well as a man. I hear she will try for a tiger later on. Her name is Scarlet and she has the idea that she is the first doctor to come to Korea. A case of English conceit again. I like the English as a race, but most of the individuals are not pleasant to know.”

Dr. Ella Campbell Scarlett-Synge in 1916 / Maclean’s Magazine, September 1916

Dr. Ella Campbell Scarlett-Synge in 1916 / Maclean’s Magazine, September 1916

When Allen wrote his letter, Dr. Scarlett had just celebrated her 36th birthday. Of course, Allen was unaware of her birthday, or much about her, and judging from his correspondences, never really got to know her. Born in Surrey, England, on Nov. 22, 1864, Dr. Scarlett was unmarried and perhaps rankled Allen with her unconventional lifestyle. She was “rather under the medium height, with dark brown hair, small features, and olive brown eyes” and she wasn’t entirely English — her deceased grandfather was George Allen Magruder, a commodore in the U.S. Navy. In fact, she had several family members associated with the American military.

Allen’s animosity towards her might have also been tinged with jealousy. “As a child she distinguished herself at school by her smartness, while her geniality and good nature made her a general favorite.” She then went to London where she dabbled in ‘proper’ society but found it “[boring], stale, and profitless.” To alleviate her misery, she “spent the between seasons [of society] in the Highlands [of Scotland], where she fished and engaged in other wholesome outdoor pastimes.”

In her mid-20s, she studied music in Germany where she acquired “a taste for things Teutonic” before returning to London in 1892. Disgruntled with the music scene, she pursued a career in medicine and “obtained not only a Belgian degree but likewise an English one.”

As one can easily surmise, Dr. Scarlett needed adventure. According to a Chicago newspaper, she practiced medicine for a short time in India before she “accepted the position of physician to the ladies of the harem of the Corean court.” Apparently she had accepted this position in the spring of 1900 and “spent a considerable time at South Kensington learning the art of preserving furred and feathered game” in preparation for her trip to Korea.

Deoksu Palace in the early 1900s / Robert Neff Collection

Deoksu Palace in the early 1900s / Robert Neff Collection

In July 1900, a local newspaper wrote:

“Miss Scarlett, who is a good natural historian intends to study the flora and fauna of Korea, as a recreation in the intervals of attending the sick and suffering. She takes her gun and her bicycle with her, as well as her camera, and intends to be ‘very busy all round.’”

It is surprising how little is known about her stay in Korea. In March 1901, an American newspaper merely described her position on the peninsula as a “mistress of a hospital in the Far East.”

Chicago’s newspaper provided a little more information about her time spent “at the Corean court, the existence being not devoid of adventure, the Corean women being just one remove above actual savagery.” Other than her wild times in the Korean palace, “she rendered invaluable services to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington in London” with her “magnificent shot” by killing “much big game, including some of those gigantic snow tigers that infest Corea and Manchuria…”

There was a degree of inaccuracy in this article from the “Windy City” (including the amount of time Dr. Scarlett spent in Korea) but the claim “she [was] a skillful bicyclist and devoted to every form of outdoor sports” seems to have been true.

Allen was proud of the role he had in Korea’s bicycle history. He was there when the first bicyclist rode through the streets of Seoul in the winter of 1884/85. He thought of himself as a skilled bicyclist (despite the many accidents), but I don’t recall anyone else praising his skill, especially in a newspaper.

Allen’s opinions of English physicians were never very flattering. In a letter to his sons in the spring of 1901, he complained about stomach problems and wrote:

“After my long illness in [1893] I was put on egg nog [by an English doctor in Seoul] and told to take a certain amount of alcohol every day, but I believe it was a mistake. English doctors have different ideas from us, and are inclined to fall back on alcohol for everything from in-growing toenails to falling hairs.”

Allen’s scorn for the English wasn’t confined to just female physicians — his letters are peppered with distaste for people being too “frightfully English and stuck up.” When describing the Boer conflict in South Africa, he expressed regret that “our English cousins are having such a hard time and losing so many fine men” and worried it might “result in the downfall of the great nation…” He added, “but the contemptible actions of some local individual Englishmen make the losses of the English Nation less disagreeable to us Americans in Korea than they otherwise might be.”

It was the Boer conflict that led to Dr. Scarlett resign her position with the Korean government in 1901, after only a year’s service. She traveled to South Africa where she “[rendered] invaluable service, first in nursing the sick and wounded in the British military hospitals, and subsequently in medical charge of the Boer women and children in the concentration camps.”

Shortly after she arrived, she married Percy Hamilton Synge, a young British army officer, and settled down to domestic life. Or did she? According to the December 1902 edition of the Korea Review, a magazine published in Seoul:

“Mrs. Ella Scarlett Synge writes from Bloemfontein about her work in South Africa: ‘My husband and I are thinking of settling in this country where there is so much to do. He is at present surveying for one of the new lines of railroad in the Transvaal. I am thinking of starting private practice in Bloemfontein but nothing is settled as yet.’”

According to her Wikipedia page, she went on to do many things. She was the first female physician in Bloemfontein and the first woman doctor at the Royal Columbian Hospital. Considering her important achievements and her early fame, it is surprising how little is known about her. The only mention of her in Korea is that one entry in The Korea Review — even the regional directories fail to mention her. Allen is the only “gossiper” that mentioned her and he did it only once or twice. Even an article about her in 1916 — for which I believe she was interviewed — seems inaccurate and makes no mention of Korea.

She died on Oct. 30, 1937, and according to her obituary in an English newspaper:

“Perhaps because of the birth of her mother, an American, in an enterprising nation, Miss Ella Scarlett was one of the first women of a family in the peerage to become a doctor. She found the life so interesting that she did not marry until the later thirties…. [her] career was more adventurous and dramatic in her earlier days than most of the stories we read in fiction or see on the films.”

Hopefully in the future her archives will be found — especially the photographs and letters — and we will be provided with not only an insight into the Korean palace (and its “harem”) but also a candid view of Horace Allen — hopefully it won’t be too “frightfully English and stuck up.”

My sincere appreciation to Diane Nars for her invaluable assistance.


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including “Letters from Joseon,” “Korea Through Western Eyes” and “Brief Encounters.”

Leave a Comment