The History of Acupuncture in the U.S.
Begins with Miriam Lee

I have no business writing about the history of acupuncture in America. I am not a historian. I am definitely not an impartial observer.

Miriam Lee with Susan Johnson

I am a licensed acupuncturist who is passionate about the profession and I have an agenda to help new acupuncturists build solid, sustainable practices.

Moreover, I think Miriam Lee is the George Washington of American acupuncture.

Currency should be minted with her face on it.

Streets should be named after her.

Dr. Miriam Lee (left) with
Susan Johnson (right)
Reprinted with kind permission
from Susan Johnson

Read more about Miriam Lee at www.tungspoints.net

There should be a medal of Honor called the "Miriam Lee Award", bestowed upon those who display dedication and excellence in the field of acupuncture. And she should be the first to receive it.

This is hardly the frame of mind of a reporter of historical facts.

But maybe it is time a passionate and biased acupuncturist offered a different version of the history of Acupuncture in America.

The History of Acupuncture in America
Does Not Begin With Nixon

Perhaps you have already heard the popular version that acupuncture arrived when Nixon opened up relations with China. There is no doubt that this helped acupuncture to grow, but it does not mark the beginning of acupuncture in the United States.

A true historian would start the "History of Acupuncture in America" by documenting the Chinese doctor who first made acupuncture available. I am not sure that information is even known. (Master's Thesis, anyone?)

One thing we do know is that Chinese medicine arrived in the U.S. through the doctors who immigrated here, some as early as the 1800's. See, China Doctor of John Day (1979) by Jeffrey Barlow and Christine Richardson.

However, for most modern Americans they will "start" the history of acupuncture in 1972 when then President Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, traveled to China accompanied by a journalist for the New York Times. While in China the journalist, named James Reston, fell ill and ended up in a Chinese hospital requiring an emergency appendectomy. To relieve his pain doctors used acupuncture.

Intrigued and impressed with the effectiveness of his experience with acupuncture, James Reston wrote about his hospitalization and acupuncture treatment in the New York Times, exposing countless Americans for the first time to acupuncture.

What James Reston didn't know is that in 1966 a young Chinese doctor immigrated to the United States and quietly started a revolution that would lead to the legalization of acupuncture in California, and set a precedent for the rest of the United States.

A New Version of the History of
Acupuncture in the United States

As American acupuncturists, with a relatively short history, it is important to know how acupuncture developed in this country and on whose broad shoulders we stand.

History texts from China tell us that the ancient way of learning Chinese medicine was to apprentice with a Master.

Chinese Commemorative Wall

Students spent years learning about the art and application of acupuncture and herbal medicine. But they also learned something else.

They learned the lineage of their medicine. These apprentices learned the names of all the Masters who came before them, all the way back to Qi Bo and the Yellow Emperor.

This was not some silly exercise in memorization. It was a respectful study honoring the contributions of thought, theory, practice, technique, and understanding of the doctors who devoted their lives to the art of healing and the science of medicine.

The Heroes of America Acupuncture

Unlike the apprentices of ancient China I cannot give you an historically accurate list of Acupuncture Masters who took on the daunting task of establishing Chinese medicine in the United States.

So instead I will provide you with The Heroes of American Acupuncture as I see it.

Who's Your Acupuncture Hero??

Click Here to
Share Who Inspired YOU!




Miriam Lee

Miriam Lee is my Hero. In her book, Insights of a Senior Acupuncturist, Dr. Lee shares her journey to the United States and how she came to practice acupuncture at a time when it was illegal.

Dr. Lee was a trained nurse, midwife, and acupuncturist in China during a time of poverty and war. She escaped to Singapore in 1949 and it was there that she began her study of emotionally-based illnesses. In pursuit of a better life, she moved to the United States in 1966.

She arrived in California at a time when acupuncture was illegal, so she took a job in a factory, unsure if she would ever practice medicine again.

It was only when she saw a friend's bed-ridden son that she offered her skills knowing that acupuncture could help. After several treatments he completely recovered. This began a deluge of word-of-mouth referrals. She always found a way to see the 75 to 80 patients a day who lined up at her door.

Miriam Lee rose to the challenge. Her attitude was, "If you don't press the olive seed, there will be no oil." (From her book, Insights of a Senior Acupuncturist)

As if she was not under enough pressure, she was arrested in 1975 for "practicing medicine without a license". Her patients filled the courtrooms anxious to testify on her behalf. Finally a compromise was proposed and Dr. Lee was permitted to practice acupuncture as an "experimental procedure". A year later acupuncture was signed into California law as a legal medical practice.

Miriam Lee went on to found and run the Acupuncture Association of America working closely with law makers to develop a comprehensive scope of practice and professional licensing for acupuncturists. Dr. Lee's persistence lead to the inclusion of acupuncture coverage by California's primary health care insurance plans.

All the while Miriam Lee maintained her clinical practice and was devoted to teaching acupuncture to students. She is responsible for bringing many well known practitioners from China to teach seminars at her Palo Alto clinic. Those seminars and Dr. Lee's courses on Tung's Points, Herbal Formulations, Scalp Acupuncture, Wrist and Ankle Points, and TCM Gynecology and Oncology are still being taught and utilized today.

Miriam Lee has poured her heart and soul into the welfare of her patients, the teaching of her students, and the entire profession of acupuncture in the United States.

As I stated earlier she should be the first recipient of the Miriam Lee Award. Consider this her nomination.



Bob Flaws

Bob Flaws is another Hero. He has dedicated himself to translating and publishing otherwise inaccessible Chinese textbooks and making them available in the United States.

He has also contributed innumerable essays, thought-provoking articles, and books on Chinese Medicine. He and his wife Honora Lee Wolfe started Blue Poppy Press and are the reason why we know who Miriam Lee is in the first place.

The Blue Poppy organization is dedicated to the advancement of acupuncture and provides supportive materials, including classes, and workshops for acupuncture marketing and business management.



Ted Kaptchuck

Ted Kaptchuck is the author of The Web That Has No Weaver, an incredible book on Chinese medicine written at a time when there was little understanding of such concepts of Qi, Yin, and Yang. I still regard his definition of Qi as the most comprehensive; "Qi is energy on the verge of becoming matter, and matter on the verge of becoming energy."

Today his book continues to be used as a standard textbook in many acupuncture schools and is a reliable resource for studying for the NCCAOM certification exam.

Ted is a researcher at Harvard University and has written numerous insightful articles and books on Chinese medicine and acupuncture. He started Kan Herbal Company and provides traditional and original herbal formulations to practitioners around the world.

Read Ted Kaptchuk's interview on Scientific American Frontiers. He has a unique understanding of the similarities and differences between Western Medicine and Eastern Medicine, and he shares his valuable perspective on the history of Eastern Medicine in the United States.



Ing Hay

"Doc Hay" predates any acupuncturists already mentioned and may be the first documented Chinese herbalist in the United States.

Ing Hay and his outgoing partner, Lung On deserve recognition for their amazing accomplishments. In 1887 a 25 year old Ing Hay arrived in Eastern Oregon in the then mining town of John Day. He was among a small group of Chinese immigrants there to mine and make their fortune. However fate took a turn.

Ing Hay met a bright young man named Lung On. Together they drew on the traditional medicine of their homeland to provide much needed medicine to the small community. Their commitment to healing and the townspeople are recorded in China Doctor of John Day (1979) by Jeffrey Barlow and Christine Richardson.

The Kam Wah Chung Building where Doc Hay lived and saw his patients is preserved as an historic site in John Day, Oregon. A guided tour reveals actual packages of herbs from China that Doc Hay used in his formulations. Some of these herbs are so rare they have yet to be identified.



This list of people who wrote the history of acupuncture in America is far from complete. There are so many more and they ALL deserve recognition and thanks.

Watch for this list to grow as more information is gathered.

Please share your Insights about any of these or other acupuncturists who inspired you.

Who Is Your Acupuncture Hero?
Who Inspired You.

Modern Acupuncturists Helping Acupuncturists
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