Edward Willet Wagner (1924-2001), the doyen of Korean studies in the United States, served the cornerstone of the Korean program at Harvard for over three decades, chaired the Department of Far Eastern Languages during the early 1970s, and through his scholarship and students, did much to reorient scholarly understanding of the Chosŏn period (1392-1910). Drafted during his sophomore year at Harvard, he was on a troop transport heading for Japan when the war came to an end. After serving with occupation forces in Japan and Korea, he returned to Harvard to complete his B.A. (1949) and A.M. (1951) degrees in Korean history. He spent the 1950s studying at Tenri University in Nara and Seoul National University in Korea, before returning to Harvard to join the faculty of Far Eastern Languages in 1958 and earn his Ph.D. in 1959.
As a scholar, Wagner was interested primarily in social history. His early work, published in the 1950s while he was still a graduate student, concerned the Korean minority in Japan. He then turned his attention to the aristocratic yangban class of Koryo and Chosŏn Korea. In his first book, The Literati Purges: Political Conflict in Early Yi Korea (1974), he argued that the political purges at the turn of the sixteenth century are evidence for the continuing economic and political power of the yangban class. This, together with the intensive studies of Chosŏn household registers, genealogies, and inheritance documents that he and his students undertook, illustrated the widespread persistence of slavery into the mid-eighteenth century and the continuity of the yangban as an aristocratic elite into the early twentieth century. In so doing, it contradicted much contemporary Korean scholarship on Chosŏn history, and helped to distinguish the historical trajectory of Korea from its larger neighbor to the West.
During his tenure at Harvard, Wagner taught a wide range of courses, included all levels of the Korean language, undergraduate surveys of Korean history, and graduate seminars on aspects of Chosŏn history. In addition to his aforementioned scholarly work, he also translated a major textbook by his colleague and Yi Kibaek entitled A New History of Korea (1984). Heralded for its attention to detail and skillful translation, the work remains a standard reference for English-speaking students and scholars of Korean history.