American Acupuncture History X

Acupuncture is a simple, low tech, cost effective medicine that has always been for the people and by the people, even in ancient China. While the Chinese aristocracy had access to herbs as well as imported drugs, the rest of the people mainly used acupuncture to treat illness, and they received treatments in community settings.

Acupuncture in America

It’s uncertain when acupuncture first came to America, but its widespread exposure came from New York Times journalist, James Reston. The story goes like this: Reston accompanied President Nixon on a trip to China in the early 1970s to open diplomatic relations. On the trip, Reston fell seriously ill, and had to go to the emergency room to get his appendix removed. In the aftermath of the surgery, Chinese doctors treated his pain with acupuncture. Impressed with the results, he requested permission to observe other uses of acupuncture and was stunned to learn of its effective relief of pain during surgery in lieu of anesthesia. Upon returning to the States, he wrote about his positive experience and shocking discoveries of the effectiveness of Chinese medicine in a report for The New York Times. However, unbeknownst to Reston, or even to Nixon for that matter, Chinese immigrants on the west coast had been bringing all sorts of new cultural practices to their American communities (largely poor, rural communities) since the 1800s, acupuncture among them.

Before Reston, acupuncture was largely marginalized. It was once labeled “irregular medicine,” even “illogical witch-doctory,” by the mainstream medical community (this last pejorative epithet was coined by President Nixon’s personal physician, Walter Tkach). But the people knew better!

The Radical Roots of Acupuncture

In 1970, in response to COINTELPRO (an acronym for the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program used in the 50's, 60's, and 70's to monitor, manipulate, and disrupt social and political movements), the revolutionary, anti-imperialist Black Panther Party and the Young Lords briefly took over the poorly funded Lincoln Hospital to demand better healthcare for their communities in the South Bronx. They also confronted the hospital administration about the lack of services for people addicted to heroin.

Unfortunately, this action did not produce any real change. So, on November 10, 1970, The Young Lords and the Black Panther Party along with their other allies and supporters completely took over Lincoln Hospital and established a drug treatment program called The People's Drug Program, later known as the Lincoln Detox Center. Acupuncture treatment was a huge part of their plan to treat the root cause of addiction, alongside political education and community service.

Although acupuncture had been illegal until the 1970s, by the end of the 20th century, it had been mostly taken in by mainstream America. However, in the process of becoming mainstream, acupuncture got “stripped of its radical roots and long history as a peasant medicine, and through a lens of white privilege was being focused into an upper middle class commodity.”1 Anyone who has investigated getting acupuncture treatments knows how expensive private sessions with an acupuncturist can run. These high prices and increased regulation around the practice have made acupuncture largely inaccessible to the majority of people in this country.

The People's Organization of Community Acupuncture

Thankfully, in 2002, in Portland, Oregon, acupuncturist Lisa Rohleder opened the first community acupuncture clinic called Working Class Acupuncture when she realized that if she set up a private practice, no one in her working-class neighborhood, including friends and family, would be able to afford treatments. Working Class Acupuncture has grown to become an extremely successful acupuncture clinic, which this year alone provided close to 50,000 acupuncture treatments. In an effort to make larger change on the national level, Lisa, with the help of many allies, formed a co-op called the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture, or POCA. There are now over 200 community acupuncture clinics across the country that last year provided over 750,000 acupuncture treatments at a sliding scale rate that is affordable and accessible to all.

Here at Fremont Community Acupuncture, we are honored and grateful to be a part of such an incredible organization as POCA and to be able to share the benefits of acupuncture with our Seattle area communities.

“Community acupuncturists, or acupunks, are working to affect social change through the tools we have available to us, acupuncture. Working to recognize and expose our own privilege and how it shapes our world view is a difficult process, as privilege is invisible to those who have it, but necessary if we are to learn from history and create our own future based on reality. This is our history. It's our responsibility to learn from it and get to work building the future. Acupuncture can change the world!”2

1from “A Radical History of Acupuncture in America” published by POCA coop, 2015

2from “A Radical History of Acupuncture in America” published by POCA coop, 2015