A Forgotten Woman: The Pioneer Chinese American Acupuncturist Shui Wan Wu (1927-1983).

Author:He, Jianye


Acupuncture received little attention from the American biomedical community and was unknown to most American people until the early 1970s. With the trip reports of several medical scientists in 1971 and President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, acupuncture and other forms of East Asian medicine were slowly introduced to Americans. However, before it was first legalized in Nevada in 1973, practicing acupuncturists in the United States would risk arrest. Among the early acupuncturists who made history, Dr. Shui Wan Wu distinguished herself as a legendary and pioneering Chinese woman acupuncturist and was well represented in the media for her demonstrations and lectures on acupuncture. Her experimental study was also presented at the first national acupuncture research conference held in Bethesda, Maryland, in early 1973. In the same year she published her first English book on acupuncture. She was also known as the first licensed female acupuncturist in Oregon when she joined her teacher, Professor Kok Yeun Leung, in his private clinic in 1973.

Despite her groundbreaking achievements, Dr. Wu has rarely been mentioned in the literature reviewing the history of acupuncture in the United States. Through Dr. Wu's archive and collected memories from her family, we were able to uncover the unusual life of this extraordinary woman and her contributions to the legalization of acupuncture in the United States and the early development of the profession in the 1970s.


The last decade has witnessed exciting progress in the recognition of the medical value of acupuncture. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) revealed that acupuncture users increased from 4.2% of the population in 2002 to 6.3% in 2007, representing 8.19 million and 14.01 million users, respectively. People use it not only as alternative therapy but also as a preventive means to promote general health. (1) In November 2010 acupuncture and moxibustion from traditional Chinese medicine were inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. The decision of the Intergovernmental Committee (Nairobi, Kenya) found that "acupuncture and moxibustion are forms of traditional Chinese medicine widely practiced in China and also found in regions of southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas." (2) On July 22, 2016, the American Society of Acupuncturists received from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the unique code 29-1291 for the profession, which meant that acupuncture was a federally recognized profession in the United States for the first time. (3) Now the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a nonprofit organization established in 1982, validates licensure to acupuncturists from forty-six states plus the District of Columbia. (4) These are thrilling changes for acupuncture practitioners.

However, it is hard to imagine that acupuncture had been mysterious and inaccessible to most Americans before the early 1970s. How was acupuncture introduced to the United States and accepted by Americans? Who were the pioneers? How did they make an impact on the general public and legislators that led to legalization of acupuncture in the United States?

There are some publications that have touched on this topic. Professor Sherman Cohn of Georgetown University reviewed the history of acupuncture in the United States from 1965 to 1985. (5) Dr. Yin Arthur Fan, who has published a dozen articles, is the most prolific author on the subject, including his interviews of some notable pioneers during the legalization of acupuncture in the 1970s. (6) Dr. Wai Tak Cheung (former president of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Society of Oregon) chronicled the brief history of acupuncture legalization in Oregon in his speech delivered on July 23, 1994, highlighting several pioneering Chinese acupuncturists who established the first acupuncture clinic in Oregon, including Dr. Kok Yeun Leung, his student Shui Wan Wu, and himself. (7) A book published in 2011 by Dr. Yongming Li on the history of Chinese acupuncture in the United States contains several stories of Chinese acupuncturists. (8) The author tries to draw a timeline of the journey of Chinese acupuncture to America by reviewing critical events that are related to the legalization and development of acupuncture in the United States.

As Dr. Yongming Li acknowledged, his book is not meant to be an in-depth historical study. (9) He also observed that current publications focus on "big figures" and rely on oral history due to lack of archival resources. Except for Meriam Lee, other woman pioneers' stories are missing or invisible in the existent literature.

This paper is a close study of Dr. Wu's professional activities in the United States. Through Dr. Wu's archive (10) and other secondary resources that have rarely been mentioned by the existent literature, we are able to have a better understanding of the historical and social background of the legalization process of acupuncture around the early 1970s and how Dr. Wu distinguished herself as one of the pioneer Chinese women acupuncturists with a scientific perspective.


Americans first learned of acupuncture through translation from European works. (11) Acupuncture may have been used for medical purposes in the United States as early as the 1840s. (12)

It was not until the 1960s that the public showed an increased curiosity about Chinese acupuncture. In 1963 Random House published the U.S. edition of Acupuncture: The Ancient Chinese Art of Healing, the first comprehensive English-language textbook on acupuncture, by Dr. Felix Mann, founder and president of the British Medical Acupuncture Society at that time.

The American public's interest in Chinese acupuncture was dramatically stimulated by the legendary story of James Reston (1909-1995), a columnist and editor at the New York Times and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. He wrote about his personal trip to China in June 1971, which was to prepare for President Nixon's visit to China in February of 1972. (13) According to Dr. Chen Zhiyong, Restons article was the first genuine American experience with acupuncture to appear in mainstream Western media. (14)

Other media news that further stimulated curiosity about Chinese acupuncture was the report of a trip to China by several American doctors in 1971. (15) Among the doctors, Ethan Signer, a microbiologist at MIT, and Arthur Galston, a professor at Yale's botany department, were the first two American scientists to visit China in May 1971. The New York Times published several articles about their trip, and the Boston Globe published an article right after they returned. (16)

In March 1972 the New York Far East Reporter magazine published a special issue titled "Acupuncture: It Works!" The editor states in the introduction, "Because of the increasing popular interest and questioning by Americans on the subject of acupuncture, Far East Reporter has compiled from various sources--Chinese and western, popular, medical and scientific--some explanations of the theory and historical background, some accounts of the application of the needle treatment (for therapy and for anesthesia), and some reactions to the use of acupuncture." (17) The aforementioned James Reston's two articles were also in this issue. (18)

Despite the scientific research and growing general interest in Chinese medicine and acupuncture, practicing acupuncture was still not legal, and arrests of practitioners were not unheard of in the early 1970s. On November 28, 1972, a Long Island acupuncturist was arrested and "charged with performing the ancient Chinese art without a medical license." (19) Three Chinese acupuncturists were arrested in Oregon in 1972 as well. (20) An article from the Washington Post described the challenge of practicing acupuncture in the United States even after President Nixon's visit to China. It says, "The first acupuncture anesthesia for surgery' in this country was performed in Chicago last April, and many doctors, hospitals and the National Institutes of Health have begun experimental studies of acupuncture. But the American Medical Association says non-licensed therapists should not be allowed to practice acupuncture. Most acupuncturists in this country have licenses or certificates from Taiwan or China, but they are not licensed to practice medicine here." The Acupuncture Center of New York was closed down in November 1972 because the state of New York refused to license its practitioners. (21)

According to Ginger McRae's critical overview of U.S. acupuncture regulation, published in 1982, the early 1970s was an important period for the legalization of acupuncture, though it only occurred after many challenges and limits imposed on nonphysicians, especially those from East Asia. The author commented, "Even at the peak of its popularity between 1972-1974, the therapy was practiced only to a limited extent.... The primary reason ... is the stifling effect of acupuncture regulation, which typically prohibits trained nonphysician acupuncturists, mostly Orientals, from performing the therapy." (22) As Dr. Arthur Yin Fan points out, the American Medical Association (AMA) had worked on acupuncture...

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