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A History of Chinese Medicine in the United States by Yvonne Scarlett

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done, then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” −Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849−1924)

Chinese Medicine has been in existence for over 2,000 years long before written texts began, and has been an integral part of Chinese culture.   “For Centuries, if not Millennia, it was transmitted as an oral tradition, and the first book to systematically describe its practice, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic…was probably compiled around 100BCE.”1   Chinese Medicine has been intertwined with both spiritual and religious practice throughout Chinese history.   The fact that it thrived is a testament to its effectiveness in both the prevention and treatment of disease.   

Acupuncture has been the most rapidly accepted form of Alternative Medicine to be practiced in the USA for over 30years.    Its introduction to the United States is generally attributed to Ing ‘Doc’ Hay, who had emigrated to the United States with his father in search of opportunity.    Ing came from a long line of herbalists.   He settled in the city of John Day after his father had returned to China, and in September of 1888, opened a store with his friend and business partner Lung On.   “In addition to the general store, Ing Hay practiced traditional Chinese medicine. He specialized in herbalism and pulseology, a technique that measures the pulse to diagnose medical problems. He became widely known for his ability to cure diseases, that baffled American-trained doctors, and both whites and Chinese would travel from throughout the region to visit the modest office of the “China doctor”.”2     However, acupuncture and Chinese Medicine remained “generally unknown until it was brought to public awareness by President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.”  3     

Prior to this period “…many Westerners have strange notions about Chinese Medicine.  Some of them see it as hocus-pocus – the product of primitive or magical thinking.  If a patient is cured by means of herbs or acupuncture, they see only two possible explanations: Either the cure was a placebo effect, or it was an accident, the happy result of hit-or-miss pin-sticking that the practitioner did not understand.  They assume that current Western science and medicine have a unique handle on the truth – all else is superstition.”

Much of this was dispelled when James Reston, the New York Times journalist who had accompanied the President, experienced the powerful effects of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine first hand.    His article titled, “Now, Let me tell you about my Appendectomy in Peking…”5 in the July 26, 1971, New York Times.

         “Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has been practiced in North America ever since the first immigrants came to this continent. It would be presumptuous to assume that the first news of acupuncture in the USA was this Times article that appeared on July 26, 1971. However, among the English speaking citizens of the United States, or at least the vast majority who had no daily contact with Asians, this article represents the first news of acupuncture to hit the mass English-speaking media. We include it at Acupuncture.com as an important event in the evolution of Oriental medicine in North America”

James Reston writes, “However, I was in considerable discomfort if not pain during the second night after the operation, and Li Chang-Yuan, doctor of acupuncture at the hospital, with my approval, inserted three long thin needles into the outer part of my right elbow and below my knees and manipulated them in order to stimulate the intestine and relieve the pressure and distension of the stomach. … It has been suggested that maybe this whole accidental experiment of mine, or at least the acupuncture part of it, was a journalistic trick to learn something about needle anesthesia. This is not only untrue, but greatly overrates my gifts of imagination, courage and self-sacrifice. There are many things I will do for a good story, but getting slit open in the night or offering myself as an experimental porcupine is not among them.    …Judging from the cables reaching me here, recent reports and claims of remarkable cures of blindness, paralysis and mental disorders by acupuncture have apparently led to considerable speculation in America about great new medical breakthroughs in the field of traditional Chinese needle and herbal medicine. I do not know whether this speculation in justified, and am not qualified to judge.”

Mr. Reston’s article opened a veritable ‘Pandora’s Box’ as many discussed the merits, etc. of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine.  

It took time and the efforts of many courageous individuals to bring Chinese Medicine to the forefront and lobbied for it to have an equal place alongside Western medicine.   Several of these persons included Bob Flaws, Miriam Lee and Leon Hammer, M.D.

Bob Flaws, one of the most well-known authors and practitioners of Chinese Medicine, since he began his studies in the subject matter in 1977, talks about some of the key differences between Western Medicine and Chinese Medicine, in his April 2003 interview with Elizabeth Liddell of Acupuncture Today.6   Two of the major differences discussed were,  ready-made medicines versus the water-based, individually written version from a Chinese medicine Practitioner, and the dosages prescribed in Western Medicine versus that of Chinese Medicine.    He pointed out that in Western Medicine, the prescriptions are a ‘one-size’ fits all type, including the dosages, while in Chinese Medicine, the practitioner, considers the whole person, and creates a ‘made-for-you’ medicine, that takes into consideration, the constitution of the person, with the goal of getting to the root of the problem, instead of just eliminating or treating the symptoms.  Mr. Flaws seems to advocate an integrative approach with both, that would provide optimum results with the least or no side effects to the patient. 

Miriam Lee was one of the first to be licensed in California as an Acupuncturist, in 1976.  Several days after her trial in 1974, acupuncture was, “legally made an ‘experimental procedure’ by Governor Ronald Reagan.  In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown signed the legislation that once and for all, legalized acupuncture.”8    Dr. Lee was most well-known for her work with, “Master Tung's ‘Magic Points’. 

“Master Tung Ching Chang, widely viewed as the greatest acupuncture technician who ever lived, practiced a method of acupuncture that was passed down to him through his family from Shandong, China, for more than 300 years. This system is renowned for the spontaneous and miraculous results obtained using just a few needles. This method is unique in that points are located opposite the affected area, and patients tend to notice effects immediately upon needle insertion. Master Tung broke convention after the Chinese Cultural Revolution and began teaching this amazing system of points outside of his immediate family. Dr. Young Wei-Chieh and Dr. Miriam Lee, both students of Master Tung's, are responsible for bringing this body of work to America.” 8   

Dr. Lee is quoted that she always said: "The important thing is to learn which key opens which lock." May Master Tung's Points open as many doors for you as they have for me and for generations before us all.”Dr. Lee was also the founder of the Acupuncture Association of America (AAA)

Leon Hammer, M.D. is most known for his work with pulse diagnosis.  As a medical doctor he specialized in Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis.  He studied Chinese Medicine between 1971-1981.  Some of his studies were completed in China.  He also studied extensively with Chinese Master Dr. John Shen for a period of over 27 years. 

As a result of these pioneering efforts, today, “over 46 states have legalized acupuncture/Chinese medicine, there are now over 45 accredited schools of acupuncture/Chinese Medicine,  and 100s new books have been published in English, including many translations of classic and modern Chinese works.”7

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine have made tremendous inroads since being first introduced in the United States by Dr. Hay.  There is hardly anyone today who has not heard of Acupuncture and it has become relatively mainstream.  Many, including myself, have found relief from various maladies, with no negative side effects as compared with conventional medicines.    Chinese Medicine is now regularly used to treat a variety of conditions.     According to AAAOM.COM, “Acupuncture has been cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) to treat over 43 conditions”.    Below is a brief list:


Immune System Deficiency



Arthritis/Joint Problems

Knee Pain

Back Pain

Macular Degeneration

Bladder/Kidney Problems

Menopausal Discomfort

Childhood Illnesses

Neck Pain/Stiffness


Pre-Menstrual Syndrome





Drug Addiction/Smoking



Sexual Dysfunction

Frozen Shoulder

Shoulder Pain

Gastrointestinal Disorders


Gynecological Disorders

Skin Problems



Heart Problems/Palpitations


High Blood Pressure

Vision Problems

There has been a significant mind shift, with people becoming more actively involved in preventive health maintenance, and also in seeking out alternate options for treatment of disease.   Chinese Medicine is here to stay and it is only a matter of time, with the demand from the general public, that more insurers will provide adequate coverage for those seeking to use this modality.   As stated in the opening quote, “…then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”