Montreal, the South Bronx and the Early Days (Acupuncturist Mark Seem on Dr. Shakur)

In the spring of 1977, a colleague of mine in the human services field invited me to attend an open house announcing the Lincoln Detox School of Acupuncture in the South Bronx. I went and we listened to a fascinating story about Black and Puerto Rican activists who were working as drug counselors at Lincoln Hospital. They had heard of ear acupuncture being used to detox addicts in East Asia, and that lead them to search for possible acupuncture training closer to home. They learned of the Quebec Institute of Acupuncture in Montreal founded in the 1960’s by Oscar Wexu, a Romanian physiotherapist who fled the Nazi invasion and moved to Paris, where he learned acupuncture. He made his way to Montreal where he settled with his family and began practicing.

Mario Wexu, Oscar’s son, had been sent to New York City to help these Lincoln Hospital acupuncture pioneers establish their training program as a branch of the Quebec Institute and to teach the students in English. Unfortunately, none of the French texts used by the Montreal school were available in English and the only text in English was the Outline of Chinese Acupuncture from China.

After listening to the director of the Lincoln Detox school, Mutulu Shakur, and speaking with the other faculty– Richard Delaney, Walter Bosque and Wafiya, who were all gainfully employed drug detox counselors in the satellite clinic where this orientation was held– I approached Shakur and spoke to him in French, mistakenly assuming he studied in French in Montreal. When he saw that I was fluent and had worked as a translator, he asked if I would translate some materials they had in French. As I began working on some articles, I was immediately hooked, and the course of my professional life was altered forever. Following the advice of one of my professors, the well-known French philosopher Michel Foucault, I drop my plans to use my PhD in French studies for an academic teaching job and I became a student in the first class.  

When our teachers got the opportunity to go to China to study acupuncture during the summer of our first year, three of us were put in charge of running the acupuncture clinic at Lincoln. Armed only with the Chinese text cited above, but already trained to needle and palpate for tender points, we worked under the legal oversight of a NYC Health and Hospital Corporation approved project of two physicians from the hospital’s main detox unit, John Lichtenstein (aka Dr. John) and Mike Smith (they had become certified in acupuncture under a Lincoln Hospital research protocol).

Very dissatisfied with the Chinese text and its Marxist interpretation of acupuncture and Chinese medical theory, not to mention its lack of any philosophical insights into the actual logic of acupuncture, I tracked down and read French texts by George Soulie de Morant, Albert Chamfrault and Nguyen Van Nghi as well as books from England by Felix Mann and Mary Austin. Mann’s description of the regular meridians and secondary vessels (channels and collaterals), which included the extraordinary vessels, fascinated me and provided a far more comprehensive and complex system of treatment than the Chinese book did. His descriptions were very similar in many respects to Chamfrault’s and Van Nghi’s texts, whose more philosophical and in depth exploration appealed to me because of my own doctoral studies in French medical anthropology. In Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault discussed the radical shift from viewing disease as being caused by humors that the physician would see leaving the body, describing them as layer upon layer of diseased tissue melting off, to a more objective and clinical approach based on detailed autopsies rooted in the Scientific Method of positivism.

Imagine my excitement when I started reading French and English texts that quoted the classics of acupuncture, where I learned of evils and qi and spirit. Here I was, a white North American student of acupuncture, learning a French language tradition of acupuncture by way of Montreal, with a strong Vietnamese influence, studying with Black and Puerto Rican activists and militants who were bringing this medicine to one of the poorest and most medically underserved neighborhoods in our country. In that first summer where we treated patients with our meager knowledge and skills (but with the zest of activists ourselves who wanted to make a difference for these suffering people), I saw patient after patient react to the mere stimulation of needles manipulated with my novice skills, saying, when I asked if it was too uncomfortable, “that’s alright, that’s good, I can feel it, it’s working.” Trained as a philosopher, I of course asked myself what was working, and more important, how did these patients, who had never experienced or even heard of acupuncture before, know what to expect, let alone how to guide us to keep going?

This was a complex and fascinating cultural event, where a 2,500-year-old Chinese medical practice was being (well) received by populations that had no idea what to expect from it. My gut instinct was that what was happening was something that all human beings are given to know all along. What these patients were feeling stemmed from a deeply engrained bodily knowledge that lay deeper than theories or cultures, and the proof was that they knew, trusted and embraced the feelings as soon as they felt them. They would share in detail the sensations they felt moving down their legs, penetrating deeply in other places, causing them to feel relaxed but also more alert. And they got better from chronic, and more often than not, ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ [MUS] as they are still termed in the European Union behavioral healthcare/stress management, and physical medicine/pain management clinical services. As we felt for tight (excess) areas to address their pain, discomfort and distress, I learned to go exactly to the spots where they felt the discomfort. Sometimes they would have a strange feeling, not pain, but more like a weakness or a coldness, and I learned to just ask them to locate this on their body. That “bodily felt sense,” as I later learned to call this tacit form of knowing, which was tied to their experience of illness and their story of suffering, would guide where I treated in a way much more similar to the older, “classical” model of disease that Foucault described in the above text, than the sterile cold portrayal of modern anatomy where the dead, lifeless body without mind or spirit replaced the living, spirited patients seeking medical care.

My fascination with acupuncture was sealed in those moments, and I was just as fascinated until I retired from active practice 6 months ago at the incongruence of practicing a 2,500-year-old medicine in a country far removed from its origins, with decidedly North American experiences of how this practice of acupuncture actually works. It was also clear that unlike the Maoist ill-fated effort to make acupuncture look like herbal medicine, and both fare well compared to biomedicine, the French classical Ling Shu view that acupuncture was best for what were new functional, psychosomatic disorders elaborated by Hans Selye in his 1958 The Stress of Life.

I was also acutely aware that I was studying this medicine with modern interpretations of classical theories, in translation (sometimes manifold, from Chinese to Vietnamese to French to English), and that there was no way I could lay claim, then or now, to any solid academic certainty about the veracity of these texts I was reading and translating or of the authenticity of those from China, whose regime at the time, while serving as a source of inspiration for Maoist-leaning militants in our country, left me not only cold, but horrified. This was not just a medicine in translation.

The North American development of acupuncture was a rediscovery, a reenactment of a medical practice, an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges and practices’ to paraphrase Foucault, with French Canadian, French Vietnamese, English, non-communist and communist Chinese, Japanese and Korean influences that wove their way into the fabric of acupuncture in this part of the world in this time, making it unlike any other.

Mark Seem, PhD, LAC, is the founder and past president of Tri-State College of Acupuncture that has recently attained ACAOM substantive change approval for the first ever post-masters DAOM doctoral program, in acupuncture medicine, open to masters in acupuncture program graduates with 45 hours herbal studies that is making its way through final NYSED registration. With that 10-year dream well on its way, he retired from teaching and active practice to rewrite a book Blue Poppy from 2000, to add this art of the heart mindfulness set of high skills to a study of the ordinary skills of Ling Shu circuit needling and French meridian acupuncture that TCM acupuncture lost in its modernization efforts to a large extent.

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