Lee Tae-joon was born on November 23rd, 1883 in Gyungsannam-do Hamangun and began his studies to become a doctor around 1905 when the Eulsa Treaty went into effect, taking away Korea’s sovereignty and turning it into a protectorate of Japan. Starting in 1907, Lee studied at Severance Hospital’s Medical School (now a part of Yonsei University) under the direction of Olive R. Avison, an American missionary doctor.
Lee first came in contact with Korea’s independence movement and its activists while working as a clerk at a shop across the entrance to Severance Hospital. It was operated by Kim Pil-sun and Kim Pil-sun’s brother Kim Yoon-oh, the former of whom would remain Lee’s lifelong teacher and comrade. The 2nd floor of Kim’s shop was used during the time Lee was there as a meeting place for the Shinminhoe or New People Society. Due to this, Lee met many activists of the Korean independence movement and became interested in being involved. Here, he also met Ahn Chang-ho who suggested he join the organization’s sister group, the Chamaedanchae or Students Association.
In May of 1911, Lee easily passed his graduation exams and became a part of the second graduating class at Severance Hospital’s Medical School, being one of six students. He received his appointment shortly thereafter from the Governor-General of Joseon to practice medicine. However his medical career in Korea would be cut short after he and Kim Pil-sun obtained prior knowledge of a future plan by Japanese police to round up the Shinminhoe members after Ahn Jung-geun’s shooting of Ito Hirobumi in Harbin, China. Lee and Kim thus decided to make their way to China in December of that year.
In later letters written to fellow comrade Ahn Chang-ho while he was in America, Lee and Kim both listed their reason for leaving to China to also be because of their admiration for the Chinese Revolution that had taken place. Lee settled in Nanjing, China where he eventually became employed as a Christian missionary doctor. His letters to Ahn detail a difficult time. Lee struggled with things like finances and the language barrier. However, also during this time, Lee began forming relationships and connections with revolutionary party figures and also traded with Korean students who were part of the student group of the Chinese revolutionary group.
In 1914, Lee left Nanjing, China for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. His motives for leaving are not quite known but it is speculated he left when he caught wind that Kim Kyu-shik, a fellow activist, had plans to establish a secret military school in Ulaanbaatar. Lee became well established in Mongolia. As modern medicine was not widespread in the country, up to 70-80% of the population suffered from venereal diseases, and Lee’s medical work became highly recognized. He entered the Mongolian royal palace and earned the trust of the Mongolian royal family, including becoming the Mongolian king’s doctor. The last Khan, Bogd Khan, awarded him with a National Medal in July of 1919 for his efforts and achievements.
While practicing medicine, Lee was still deeply involved in the Korean independence movement and provided funds to Kim Kyu-shik, the head of the Shinhan Chungchong Party, who would be sent to the Paris Peace Conference. Lee was also in charge of transporting 120,000 rubles for the Heroic Corps. He successfully transferred 80,000 rubles but in February 1921, when the Russian army took over Ulaanbaatar, Lee was killed by Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, also referred to as the Mad Baron. Lee had stayed in the city, presumably due to his responsibility of over 40,000 more remaining rubles that needed to be transported for the Korean independence movement. He was just 38 years old when he died.
Due to there being a lack of records for the activist, Lee went unrecognized for a very long time. It was only in 1990 when he gained recognition for his efforts in aiding the independence movement. However, there is still a lack of information about Lee, leading most of the information about his life to be drawn from documents such as Severance Hospital’s registry and his letters with Ahn Chang-ho. In 1990, he received South Korea’s Order of Merit for National Foundation and in 2000, a monument, and in 2001, a memorial park was built with the support of the Mongolian government, Mongolian Yonsei Hospital, Yonsei University Health System and the Alumni Association of the College of Medicine in Yonsei University.