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Acupuncture in America: A Short History

While most Americans know that acupuncture is an ancient Oriental healing art, few realize that it has a substantial history in the West as well. In fact, this ancient form of medicine has been studied in Europe and the US for hundreds of years.

The oldest Western writings describing acupuncture were the work of seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries who visited Peking; the first American physician known to have used acupuncture was a Dr. Bache in 1826.

In 1901, Ah Fong Chuck became the first acupuncturist/ herbalist to win a medical license to practice Chinese Medicine in Idaho. In 1913, Sir William Osler, often considered the father of modern medicine, introduced acupuncture to American physicians when he wrote that "for lumbago [low back pain], in acute cases, acupuncture is the most efficient treatment" (Principles & Practice of Medicine). Unfortunately, this trend toward a wider acceptance of Chinese Medicine stopped abruptly with World War II, when supplies of herbs from China were severed, and when stronger medical practice laws made acupuncture officially illegal. Forced underground, acupuncturists limited themselves to secretive practices in Chinatowns across the country. Chinese medicine did not return to the public eye until 1972, when President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to the People's Republic of China to re-open diplomatic relations. While traveling in China to write about Nixon's trip, New York Times correspondent James Reston needed an emergency appendectomy and was treated for post-surgical pain with acupuncture. When he wrote about this experience and about how the Chinese use acupuncture for anesthesia during surgery, there was enormous excitement and interest among American doctors and non-physicians alike, with groups of each going to China to seek training.

Still, acupuncture remained illegal or unregulated in many states. In 1974, California Governor Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill that would have legalized acupuncture in California. Renowned acupuncturist Miriam Lee was arrested the very morning the veto was signed. (She was illegally treating 80 patients a day in a doctor's office at the time.) Not until Ms. Lee's patients filled a courtroom day after day to protest being denied access to the only medicine that helped them, did the California legislature decide to allow acupuncture to be considered an "experimental procedure." In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown finally legalized acupuncture.

Today, 30 states license, certify or register acupuncturists and there are more than 35 programs that teach acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. In an historic 1996 decision, the Food and Drug Administration changed its classification of acupuncture needles from "experimental device" to "medical device for general use" by trained professionals. This has led to more widespread insurance coverage for acupuncture, and has paved the way for increasing integration of Chinese medicine into the American health care system.

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