A Little History of Acupuncture

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the history of CAM or Complementary and Alternative Medicine in order to prepare for my class next semester at the University of Iowa. One of the things I’m interested in is history of CAM, and in that research, have learned that Acupuncture actually came to Europe in the 1600s when European traders brought it back from their trips to China. The first person to write about it in European literature is a Dutchman. It spread around Europe and was practiced by physicians in Germany, France, Holland, and England (among other places). Writings from the time show it was widely used until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it fell out of favor due to the “scientificization” of medicine at that time.

Another “CAM” therapy that was commonly used during that time was homeopathy. It was invented by a German doctor, Hahnemann, and was very desirable for patients because it was not painful or frightening, as were the common treatments of the 1800s like bleeding, emetics, and purges. Homeopathy involves giving an infinitesimal dose of a drug. A lot of the medicine practiced in those days was truly horrific and the patients were looking for gentler things to try and they loved homeopathy.

Acupuncture and Homeopathy were both widely used in Europe in the 1800s and were strongly embraced by the public. Acupuncture was practiced not according to the traditional Chinese methodology, but from a more “Western” perspective, based more on anatomy and just putting needles into painful muscles. Even when separated from the TCM theory that we use now in our practices, it was effective.

However, during the early 1900s, the Flexner Report came out, along with the organization of the AMA. The Flexner Report was funded by Rockafeller, and attempted to show that synthetic and naturally derived potent drugs were more safe and effective than the traditional methods and snake oil cures of the time. It was very convincing and began the era in which it came to be believed that the experience of a few patients and doctors was not as valid as large research studies with good controls. This was certainly an advance over the many frightening and bizarre medical procedures people regularly underwent at the time. Western Europe followed the United States in embracing scientific medicine at that time. And the tremendous developments in medicine during WWI and WWII advanced medicine greatly in the first half of the 20th century.

Acupuncture was forgotten until the 1960s and 70s when “hippee culture” brought people’s attention back to the idea that natural healing methods might be more desirable than chemical and surgical treatments. Homeopathy continued to be practiced widely in Europe and even in India, along side their traditional healing, Ayurvedic medicine. Homeopathy was paid for by the National Healthcare System of England.

Acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal medicine were certainly practiced in Chinese communities in the US during the time that Chinese migrated to the US to help build the railroad across the country in the 1800s. But it was not until Nixon went to China in 1974 that we heard about acupuncture in the press. One of his press corps developed appendicitis and had acupuncture as a pain control therapy after his surgery. He returned to the US and wrote about it in national publications. This was also the time that the “iron curtain” was coming down and we began to learn much more about life in “red China”.

My acupuncture school, The New England School of Acupuncture, began as a small group of students studying under Dr. James “Tin Yao” So, meeting in the back room of the Shambala book store in Harvard Square, Cambridge in 1975. It was the first acupuncture school to be formally organized in the US. Those first few students became the first teachers at the school, alongside Dr. So. I was in the 5th graduating class at that school.

Dr. Miriam Lee practiced acupuncture in California in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s She was arrested for practicing medicine without a license during the Reagan days in California. She served a couple of years in jail, and was pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown. Shortly after that time, licensing laws came to California which allowed practitioners of Chinese medicine to practice their art without fear of legal ramifications. Dr Miriam Lee is venerated as one of the early pioneers in the field of acupuncture in the US. She practiced a style of acupuncture handed down through the family named Tung.

I studied Tung’s style acupuncture with Miriam Lee’s student, Susan Johnson who practices in Santa Cruz. I feel honored to share some of that lineage and to have the very effective methods that were so powerful in Miriam Lee’s practice.

I hope this little bit of history may be interesting. I have certainly enjoyed learning more about the medicine of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in our country and Europe.