Charles John Pedersen ― 'Korea’s first Nobel Prize winner'
After being nominated fourteen times in as many years, former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, finally won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. Although he was the first Korean to win a coveted Nobel Prize, he was not the first Nobel Prize winner to be born in Korea ― that honor belongs to Charles John Pedersen.
The Pedersen family traces its beginnings in Korea to about the mid-1880s when Brede Pedersen, a Norwegian, arrived as a member of the Korean Customs Department. He appears to have been an engineer on the Korean Government steamship Hairong until the early 1890s and then later aboard the Hyenik, which was commanded by Captain J. Gundersen ― another Norwegian. It was common during these early years for Korean steamships to have German or Norwegian captains, European officers and Korean crews.
Around 1893 Brede met and married Takino Yasui, the 19-year-old daughter of a Japanese merchant living in northern Korea. Charles claimed that his father met Takino near the American-owned Unsan Gold Mines, but this seems unlikely as the gold mines were not established until after 1896. Shortly after they were married, they were blessed with two children, John (1894) and Astrid (1899).
By the early 1900s, Brede and Gundersen were no longer working for the Korean government but were still involved with Korean shipping. David Deshler, an American businessman from Ohio, started up his own shipping company in Chemulpo and hired both men. They were tasked with traveling to Finland where they inspected and bought five steamships and then sailed them one by one to Korea. Once they arrived, Deshler renamed these ships in honor of his state ― Ohio ― one through five.
In early February 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began with Korea as the center of the battle zone. During this turbulent period, Takino and the children were living near the Unsan gold mines. In his Nobel lecture entitled “The Discovery of the Crown Ethers” (Dec. 8, 1987), Charles said:
“Frequent incursions by Cossacks across the Yalu River into the region of the mines were considered to endanger my mother, so she and several American ladies were sent south by carriage to the railhead for safety.”
It isn’t clear when the Pedersen family made this move but they were not part of the 25 men, women, and children who were evacuated on March 13 by the American warship, U.S.S. Cincinnati.
Takino and her children made their way to Fusan (modern Busan) where they probably stayed throughout the war. Even in the best of times, the mortality rate of children in Korea was high. While Brede was at sea, young John perished from a childhood disease. His death devastated his parents. But on October 3, 1904, Takino gave birth to Charles who was “doubly welcomed” by his still grieving mother.
According to Charles, following John’s death, his father gave up the sea and went to work at the gold mines. What seems more likely, however, is that he found himself out of a job after Deshler sold his steamship business to the Japanese shipping firm, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK).
In 1908, the Pedersen family once again took up residence near the gold mines. Not the American mines but rather the French mines at Taeyudong which were further north and arguably more remote.
“I spent my first and last winter at the mines when I was 4 years old. The region was known for severe weather due to the confluence of the Siberian steppes, Mongolian Gobi Desert and the mountains of Korea. Large Siberian tigers still roamed the countryside and were frightened away with bells on pony harnesses. Wolves killed children during the cold winter nights, and foxes slept on roofs against the chimneys to keep warm.”
Even though Charles was only at the gold mines for a short period, it had a powerful impact on his destiny. Every month the mines had a cleanup day at which time the raw gold was processed with cyanide. “The pouring of the molten gold was always a beautiful sight, and,” Charles speculated, “that might have started my interest in chemistry.”
When Charles was eight his mother and father sent him to a convent school in Nagasaki and then a few years later to Saint Joseph College in Yokohama where he learned chemistry. Apparently, except for a brief period when his mother stayed with him in Yokohama, his family remained in Korea.
In 1922, Charles went to the United States and studied chemical engineering at the University of Dayton in Ohio. One of the reasons he chose Ohio was because of the number of friends of the family living in that state ― many of the Americans living in Korea during the early 20th century were from Ohio and Indiana. He later went on to study at MIT but, because he was eager to begin work, did not receive his Ph.D.
In 1927, he started his 42-year-long career at Du Pont – at this point he was an American citizen. His father continued to work at the French and American gold mines in Korea and died at Unsan in 1932. His sister, Astrid, also remained in Korea and worked for Standard Oil Company at Chemulpo. During World War II, despite being half-Japanese, she was briefly held as a foreign prisoner. She passed away in 1964.
Charles continued to prosper and excel in the United States. In 1987, he and two other chemists were presented with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Two short years later, Charles passed away.
Despite winning this prestigious award and his family’s long history in Korea, Charles Pedersen remains relatively unknown to the Korean public. He was the first Nobel Prize winner born in Korea.