While I love history, I am no historian. Furthermore, where acupuncture is concerned I am definitely not an impartial observer. Once began to settle and open my private practice Oakland I realized I didn't have the faintest clue regarding the historical roots of acupuncture, not only California but the United States. In my everyday life I've thrown around phrases like “2000 years old” and “ancient medicine with modern practicalities” which are all true but these statements are so obtuse that at times I even have a hard time connecting to them to a historical context.
For most of us in America, we can date acupuncture to landing on our shores in 1972 when then President Nixon traveled to China while accompanied by a journalist from the New York Times. While in China the journalist, James Reston, fell ill and required an emergency appendectomy that was performed in Chinese hospital. To relieve his pain before and after surgery doctors administered acupuncture. Reston was so impressed with the pain relief that acupuncture provided, he wrote about his experience upon returning to the United States.
What James Reston, and even I, didn’t realize was that acupuncture and Chinese medicine mostly likely were introduced to Europe and the United States sometime during the 17th century. While still limited, by the 19th century European physicians, especially in France, began publishing detailed accounts of their experiences practicing acupuncture not only on themselves but on their patients as well. Although largely unnoticed, published papers from Europe began to arrive on eastern sea board of the United States in the early 1800’s. In 1829, the American edition of Tavernier’s Elements of Operative Surgery, includes a three page article on how and when to perform acupuncture and an operation similar to electro-acupuncture.
The first documented acupuncturists and herbalists in the U.S. were Ing Hay and Lung On. In 1887, Ing Hay arrived in the mining town John Day, in Eastern Oregon. He soon began practicing Chinese medicine with fellow practitioner Lung On, serving both the Chinese and Caucasian community there. Doctor Hay and On were both arrested several times for practicing medicine without a license but due to their popularity in the community, each case brought against them was dismissed.
Fast forwarding, there are a couple pioneers from the twentieth century that helped to advance and legalize the practice of Chinese medicine in America. I’m proud to say that not only did major developments take place in California but they were also accomplished by women.
Efforts to legalize acupuncture began with the American born Barbara Bernie. Suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome Barbara traveled all the way from Silicon Valley, California to Canada in 1971 to receive acupuncture treatments for her condition. The treatment worked so well that she accepted a referral to an acupuncturist practicing illegally in San Francisco. From 1971, she tirelessly pursued legislation culminating, in 1975, in the legalization of acupuncture in the State of California. Barbara Bernie later traveled to the United Kingdom to attend a school of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture becoming one of the first licensed Caucasian acupuncturists in the United States.
In 1966 Miriam Lee immigrated to the United States and quietly started a revolution that would help to lead to the legalization of acupuncture in California, and set a precedent for the rest of the United States. When arrested in 1975 for practicing medicine without a license, her patients lined the courtroom to testify on her behalf and days later California Governor Ronald Reagan legalized acupuncture as an experimental procedure. In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation legalizing acupuncture as an accepted medical practice in California, and Lee became one of the state's first licensed acupuncturists. Miriam Lee ran the Acupuncture Association of America from its inception in 1980 until 1998.
In the past 40 years:
· Over 46 states have legalized and regulated acupuncture and Chinese medicine
· Since the mid-1980s acupuncture schools have accepted national accreditation standards
· In the mid-1980s a national examination in acupuncture began, which most states accept for licensing
· There are approximately 50 accredited schools of acupuncture / Chinese medicine in America
· Thanks to the hard work of acupuncturists like Bob Flaws and other Chinese medicine pioneers, hundreds of new books have been published in English, including many translations of classic and modern Chinese works
· The World Health Organization published Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials, listing over 30 symptoms, diseases, and conditions that have been shown through controlled trials to be treated effectively by acupuncture.
· As of 2004, nearly 50% of Americans who were enrolled in employer health insurance plans were covered for acupuncture treatments and with Obama Care that number is increasing.
· There are currently over 20,000 licensed acupuncturists practicing in America
For me it’s easy to envision the future of acupuncture and Chinese medicine here on my home turf. I can see it becoming a part of everyday life, no longer boxed in as an alternative form of health care. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is cost-effective, provides a safe, virtually side effect-free method of recovery from pain after surgery, lessens postoperative nausea, constipation, and urinary difficulties, and can manage existing conditions like hypertension, anxiety and insomnia.
 Cassedy, J.H. Early uses of acupuncture in the Uniter States, with an Addendum (1826) by Franklin Bache, M.D. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1974 Sep;50(8):892-906