Acupuncture and East Asian Herbal Medicine has a varied history in the United States of America. During the first part of the 19th century, herbal medicine dominated. Then the latter half of the 20th century was dominated by acupuncture. For many, Acupuncture is a recent phenomenon in the United States that appeared in the early 1970s in the South Bronx in the form of Ear Acupuncture. In the U.S., the history of East Asian Medicine is of course much older than what has been presented. As its development has taken new forms in the U.S., its legacy and future cannot be denied. In this writing, I make a sincere effort to track the trajectory of acupuncture and herbal medicine from an East Asian medicine inception to this land of America, describing its past, modernity and *future. *Please keep in mind this is a two part series.
The field of East Asian medicine has gained significance in the United States in the last fifty years. Patients in the U.S. have increased visits to practitioners of acupuncture and East Asian medicine for "stress-related syndromes, to enhance the immune system, to reduce insomnia, to improve athletic performance, and to address Alzheimer's disease, as well as for cardiac and post-stroke therapy" (Lu, 2013). This artifact briefly studies East Asian Medicine’s inception in the United States, its obscurity, its cultural repression and its anticipated growth into the future.
East Asian Medicine is being defined as a medicine that comes from East Asia. Specifically that which encompasses ethnic groups that are indigenous to East Asia; consisting of China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, and South Korea.
East Asian Medicine (Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, with many other insights) is remarkably established in the history of the United States and yet has been discussed with curiosity, inspiration and even contempt. Its ancient origins found their way to America earlier than most know.
Much later, its wholesale rejection was combined with immigrant expulsion kept in American Chinese enclaves. After years of a survivalist dormancy, innovation and resurfacing in the U.S., foundations have been laid to continue its development through professionals, practitioners and schools of higher learning (Lu, 2013).
Over the years, I have had many conversations about Chinese and East Asian medicine with colleagues. Conversations on the history of Acupuncture and East Asian herbal medicine traditions were difficult to have with clarity and honesty. While many colleagues could discuss this or that on Chinese theory, many could not give a definitive account of East Asian Medicines origins and development in the United States. This revealed a pressing need to give practitioners and the general public, a central resource. It has also inspired a need to research, interview and find as much living information as possible on this history for future generations of the profession.
After careful review and combing through hundreds of articles, discussion boards and book titles, it became very clear that no definitive timeline of Acupuncture & East Asian medicine history in North America exists. That is to say there are works which will detail the past to the modern era of medicine yet none which focus on the chronological and parallel of the modern era. In this work we shall spare no effort to begin this undertaking. And while there are many excellent works on acupuncture and East Asian medicine; its origins and its expansion to Europe via Jesuits and other groups, until very recently has proved very difficult to find one source that followed the development of Acupuncture as we now know it today in the U.S. It is with this inquiry that I have begun an exhaustive effort to connect the proverbial dots of Acupuncture’s history in North America.
As the history and debate of immigration rages on, parallels drawn with the history of East Asian Medicine in the U.S. speaks to the nation’s cultural amnesia of today. We can learn from the past -if we are honest- to vitalize the future of the field. While there may be little debate over where acupuncture, the theory of channels, and East Asian medicine originate, the history of their development belongs to all. Paying homage and respect to the original lineages of the practice could help to better inform its future.
“Slavery received, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains
stationary.” ― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
United States Healthcare, Race, and Medicine in The 1800s
The construction of race in the late 19th century and subsequent centuries dominated the societal landscape of the United States. Some have noticed this construction was more of a caste system, than simply a racial system. This caste system studied from perversions of the story of Noah and his sons, as well as the caste system of India without the underpinnings of spiritual aspects, created an artificial hierarchical prototype enforced by racial skin color constructs.
In the early 19th century, the definition of white was in its early stages. Anglicized groups readily chose White (WASP), while the German, French, Eastern/Western Europe were not quite solidified or welcomed in the United States at this time. (It would not be until late 19th century and early 20th that the Irish would be given such a status.) This system created to maintain societal control for wealth and enforcement, lasted for generations against those who were considered at the lowest rung of it- brown and black people- (Wilkerson, Caste, 2020). In between these artificial precepts relying solely on arbitrary phenomena of skin color, existed every “other” Human. This included the Irish early on, Italians and later the East Asian people. In this landscape, this artificial caste system was in full enforcement in all strata of society, especially in Healthcare for generations to come.
Healthcare in the United States in the early 19th century consisted of mostly indigenous peoples' practice of traditional medicines. From midwifery to herbal medicine, this was the norm in most of the United States. Yet with the advent in the rise of density in cities, the most important part of the changing landscape of Healthcare in this era came by way of learning to improve sanitation so infectious diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and the plague did not erupt.
On January 21st 1801, Philadelphia became the first major city in the U.S. to provide clean drinking water citywide. This was a high improvement of healthcare for the young nation at this time.
Other than alms houses along the East River in New York in 1811, and one of the first psychiatric books published by Benjamin Rush, M.D., entitled Inquiries and Observations on the Diseases of the Mind, American folk medicine was considered normal and self-contained among the growing populous (Rush, 1812).
In 1820, the first compendium of conventional drugs in the U.S. entitled Pharmacopeia was published by eleven physicians in Washington, D.C. While strong concepts of the caste system and race were taking shape, the repair from the Revolutionary War was still fresh in most places. A sharp consensus on national identity, wealth building and labor classes took precedent.
Acupuncture in a New Land, 1826
The introduction of acupuncture in the 19th century to the United States came by way of Europe via Asia, mainly by medical doctors. This generational wave of radical, medical and pseudo-medical innovations included homeopathy, mesmerism, phrenology, hydropathy and more. The burgeoning medical profession at this time was hesitant on the usage of acupuncture because of being "burned" again by previous claims of "medical panaceas" (Lu, 2013, 311).
In 1826, articles reported on the effects of acupuncture, were led by Dr. Franklin Baché (the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin), a physician, who translated from the French and published in Philadelphia an American edition of Morand's Memoir on Acupuncture (Cassedy, 1974). The English,
Germans and French were introduced to East Asian medicine (Chinese, Japanese and Korean), mainly acupuncture and moxibustion, in the 1500s. All regions had published articles, yet the French developed acupuncture techniques and wrote about it more extensively. Nevertheless, having access to these articles, Bache experimented on State penitentiary prisoners, suffering from muscular rheumatism, chronic pains, neuralgia & ophthalmic concerns with acupuncture in Philadelphia (Bache, 1826).
Acupuncture could have taken root earlier in the United States, yet it did not, for many reasons. A few would be; the limited accepted socially structured thinking at the time. For example the term white was not as yet defined in 1826. Only those old anglicized colonist families were considered heirs to the spoils of the United States. Not even the Irish, Germans and definitely not the Italians were considered white in this era. Asian people were out of sight out of mind. Another were the medical charlatans or commonly referred to as snake oil salesmen. And of course the ever present burgeoning codified dehumanization of enslaved indigenous and black people preoccupied the labor building conditions of the young nation.
For some medical doctors in Philadelphia, proving effectiveness by reproducing a claim made in Europe that acupuncture worked to revive dead kittens, was a goal. When the experiment failed, the claim for acupuncture legitimacy drew skepticism. This was of course an undue expectation, yet one which many in the burgeoning medical field accepted (Cassedy, 1974).
In 1829, a surgical book, Elements of Operative Surgery, contained a three-page section describing acupuncture techniques (Tavernier, 1829). These techniques included when and how to perform acupuncture, including electro-acupuncture, or as it was known then Acupuncturation. Years later- in 1833- editors of the Medical Magazine, reprinted from The Cyclopedia of Medicine an original article by Editor John Elliotson on Acupuncture. In 1836, Dr. William Markley Lee wrote an article in the Southern Medical Journal recommending Acupuncture for pain relief. In the same year, he published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal an article entitled “Acupuncture as a Remedy
for Rheumatism” (Waring, 1973).
In 1843, Robley Dunglison and Bache were the most prominent in Philadelphia to employ Acupuncture. Dunglison reported using Acupuncture "to drain off the fluid from the cellular membrane in anasarca"; he suggested employing larger needles for this operation than were ordinarily used in other diseases (Cassedy, 1974). Through his New Remedies compendium (1839 1st ed-1859 7th ed), Dunglison's role in publicizing his method revealed an "eight-page account of acupuncture" (Dunglison, 1839). This was the era of Andrew Jackson’s government expansion to the southern states to enforce the murderous ideals of the recent Caste system.
In Medical Apartheid (Washington, 2006), it shares how the curious and depraved medical experiments most physicians studied to learn the Human anatomy was with the bodies of stolen bodies of enslaved black and brown people. This era of society laid the groundwork for the medical institutions for centuries. It clearly did not give the medical profession a holistic perspective for acupuncture to root in the public consciousness.
In addition, the perception of the needle carried risks of infection. This pre-listerian era coupled with advances in anesthetics and the promise of pain relief in surgery may have also contributed to acupuncture’s obscurity. Detractors in this period included Samuel D. Gross, who said, "Its advantages have been much overrated, and the practice has fallen into disrepute" (Gross, 1859, 575).
According to the Surgeon-General's Library, less than a half of a dozen American publications were compiled on American acupuncture during the years of 1850-1900. Some physicians still employed acupuncture during these years.
Acupuncture did not go quietly into the dark. Benjamin Bache and Robley Dunglison saw themselves becoming the leading proponents of acupuncture in early American history. In a summarized report by Bache of "I7 cases (some cases were not among the prisoners) he noted seven "were completely cured, seven considerably relieved, and in the remaining three cases, the remedy produced no effect." Overall, Bache was clear that acupuncture "offered great promise"
for "removing and mitigating pain." He concluded that it could well be "a proper remedy in almost all diseases, whose prominent symptom is pain" (Bache, 1826, 311-21). Other medical doctors of the era continued to study acupuncture. In 1892, Sir William Osler stated in his classic textbook The Principles and Practices of Medicine that lumbar acupuncture was the most efficient treatment for managing acute pain (Osler, 1892). However, acupuncture remained an in-depth medical and academic curiosity to most.
We can see from the initial influence of Europe on the spread of acupuncture to the United States, there was a flurry of activity in the early 1820s to the latter half of the century. As we shall see, there was another trail that was making its way toward the shores of America. It was part and parcel of acupuncture’s mother culture.
The Taiping Revolution, 1857
By the early 1820s, Philadelphian doctors had contributed to acupuncture research in the incipient medical landscape. Halfway across the world, events were shaping that would influence and quietly support acupuncture’s framework and East Asian medicine in the United States. Consequently, while acupuncture was finding resonance on a small scale in America, in 1822 the Qing Dynasty officials ordered the department of the Imperial Medical College to permanently abolish acupuncture and moxibustion because it was not suitable to be applied to the emperor.
From December 1850 to January 1866, a full-scale civil war began between the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom movement and the Qing Dynasty. It is known as one of the largest and bloodiest civil wars in China, affecting and displacing over 70 million people. This movement affected every province except Gansu. Led by a self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ, Hong Xiuquan, a descendant of the Hakka ethnic tribe, the strategy was nationalistic, religious and political. From their base in Nanjing (then Tianjin), the main goal was to overthrow the Manchu-Qing Dynasty and establish the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a syncretic Christianity, throughout all of China. This war caused the
migration of millions of Chinese throughout the world. Sensing war was prevalent, this displacement for some began as early as 1848 (Cao, 2001).
During the years of 1565-1815, the Spanish ruled over the Philippines, and many Chinese visited North America as fishermen, sailors, and merchants on Spanish galleons (Manila galleons) that sailed between the Philippines and Mexican ports. The state of California still belonged to Mexico until 1848, and some historians have claimed small numbers of Chinese were settled in the Golden State as early as the 1750s. A fur trader named John Meares sailed British expeditions from Canton to Vancouver Island in 1788 and 1789, with several Chinese sailors and craftsmen contributing to the first European-designed boats launched in British Columbia (Pethick, 1980).
Post-American Revolutionary War, the United States began transpacific maritime trade with the Qing Dynasty. This inevitably brought Chinese into contact with American merchants and sailors in the commercial port of Canton (Guangzhou). Here, the locals were attuned to unique opportunities of gold and enterprise in America. Canton and New England were the main trade routes for these merchants, sailors, seamen and students. This first wave of Chinese to migrate to the United States arrived via Cape Horn. As you may imagine, many wanted to see and acquaint themselves with the strange opportunities of the foreign American land. Many arrived but did not remain as only a few settled permanently at this time (Chugg, 1997).
In addition to trade, China had allowed American missionaries operational grants, allowing for the passage of several Chinese boys to the United States for schooling. From 1818 to 1825, five students stayed at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese graduate from an American college, Yale University.
In 1850, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company established a steamship line competing with the U.S. Mail Steamship Company between New York City and Chagres. George Law placed an opposition line of steamers (SS Antelope, SS Columbus, SS Isthmus, SS Republic) in the Pacific, running from Panama to San Francisco. In April 1851, the rivalry was ended when the U.S. Mail
Steamship Company purchased Pacific Mail steamers on the Atlantic side, and George Law sold his new company and its ships to the Pacific Mail. One of the company's steamships, the SS Winfield Scott, acquired when the New York and California Steamship Company went out of business, ran aground on Anacapa Island in 1853. In 1867, the company launched the first regularly scheduled trans-Pacific steamship service with a route between San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Yokohama, and extended service to Shanghai. This route led to an influx of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, bringing new cultural diversity to California (Wikipedia, 2019).