The Long History of Chinese Medicine–Briefly

By Michael Sano
I can smell the faint traces of ginger, cardamom, and anise wafting from the door beside me. I could be searching for lunch in Chinatown, but instead I’m in the ACTCM clinic waiting for an acupuncture treatment.

The entrance to the herbal dispensary is right off the clinic lobby, where more than 300 herbs are stored. Rows of wooden drawers contain herbs both dried and pulverized for teas and concoctions.

For those who prefer a more convenient and less flavorful prescription, there are also shelves of bottles: herbal formulas prepackaged in pill form. As it has been doing for more than 3,000 years, this is one example of how Chinese medicine has adapted to treat the modern patient.

Chinese medicine has a long history covered in much detail in ACTCM’s History of Healing and Medicine class. In the course, students follow Chinese medicine across the Pacific to America. The medicine likely arrived with the first groups of Chinese immigrants to reach California, when it was still under Spanish rule. But the first records of its practice, however, particularly outside of Chinese enclaves, are found alongside the wave of Chinese laborers who immigrated to work on the U.S. transcontinental railroad.

In Oregon, tourists can get a glimpse of this history at the Kam Wah Chung museum, originally built in 1871 as a general store and Chinese medical center. Doc Hay, the co-proprietor and resident acupuncturist, treated American settlers out of the center during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. According to local lore, all of Doc Hay’s patients survived, an impressive statistic against a 10%-20% reported mortality rate in other parts of the world.

There are also records of other Chinese medicine practitioners successfully treating small numbers of patients outside of Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was in 1971 that the journalist James Reston exposed the whole U.S. to acupuncture with an article in The New York Times covering his emergency appendectomy in China.

“Now, About My Operation in Peking” tells the story of Reston’s surgery at the Peking Union Medical College and how doctors used acupuncture and herbal medicine for postoperative care. At the time of Reston’s surgery, a huge corps of doctors was being trained across China to serve a largely rural populace. The giant scope of this training led to the formation of what is now known as Traditional Chinese Medicine-a national unifi­cation of various systems of medicine practiced in China over millennia.

A year after Reston’s story hit the news­stands, four UCLA students became the first known Westerners to study Chinese medicine in the United States. They stud­ied under Dr. Ju Gim Shek, nicknamed Dr. Kim, in a Hollywood strip mall at what became known as the Institute of Taoist Studies. One of these students, Stephen Rosenblatt, traveled to Hong Kong with Dr. Kim and became the first Westerner admitted to the Hong Kong Acupuncture College. He later went on to found the New England School of Acupuncture.

That same year-1972-with the founding of the first U.S. acupuncture organization, the education of Chinese medicine expanded to include Western doctors and dentists. Soon after, states began enacting laws in regard to the training and practice of acupuncturists. Oregon was the first, followed quickly by Nevada and Maryland. Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia have licensed more than 27,000 practitioners of Chinese medicine.

This year ACTCM celebrates 35 years of educating acupuncturists. The college was founded in 1980 by Dr. C.S. Cheung, Yat Kae Lai, Howard Harrison, and Aik Kaw Wong. Within a year, they welcomed their first class of 34 students into a two-year certification program in Traditional Chinese Medicine. At the same time, the college first opened the doors of its clinic, which continues to serve patients from around the Bay Area.

ACTCM has been a leader in the field from its very first years of operation. Its library holds one
of the most extensive Chinese medicine collections in the U.S. It developed oppor­tunities for students to study at Chinese hospitals in 1985, the same year it was approved to receive international students in its own classrooms. The following year, ACTCM became the first school in the country to offer a Master of Science degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The founders of ACTCM and the faculty who continue their legacy are deeply committed to all aspects of Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is the most frequently discussed aspect of the medicine in America, but ACTCM is also well-known in the field for its herbal medication faculty and curriculum.

In 1984, the college’s expertise was sought out for creating the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. Students at ACTCM created their own Chinese medicinal herb garden at the Potrero campus as a living study aid. The garden continues to be tended to season after season by current students.

ACTCM is dedicated to advancing standards in the field of Chinese medicine. For over a decade, the college has been offering advanced education to practitioners through its postgraduate doctoral program. This year, as ACTCM celebrates 35 years of educational excellence, the college is proud to announce its newest degree program as well as its merger with CIIS.

2015 is the year of the sheep in Chinese astrology. ACTCM looks forward to a year of peace and harmony as it forges a new identity with CIIS and continues its legacy in the expanding field of Chinese medicine.

Sitting beside the door to the ACTCM herbal dispensary, I keep smelling herbs: lavender, chamomile, and a dozen others that I can’t name but I’m sure my acupuncturist could prescribe to keep me balanced throughout this exciting year. Maybe I’ll even request a special 35th-anniversary concoction.

Michael Sano is ACTCM’s Director of Student Affairs and Alumni Relations.

Contact Us