Sharpening the Needle: British Interpretations of Acupuncture, 1802–30

  • Roberta E. Bivins
Part of the Science, Technology and Medicine in Modern History book series (STMMH)


In the eighteenth century, acupuncture was invariably described in terms of and in conjunction with its exotic Asian context, although those descriptions generally separated the technique from the theories that explained it in China and Japan. Moxibustion, on the other hand, existed in the medical literature independently of its origins. Medical dictionaries and encyclopedia, for example, often listed moxa under the techniques of actual cauterization and adustion, to which it was likened, or under the herb artemisia, from which the moxa tinders were made. By the end of the eighteenth century, moxa was familiar enough to be mentioned as a treatment option, albeit a slightly unusual one, without further explanation. Although moxa and acupuncture were first reported to the European audience in similar tones and by the same individuals, moxa had the advantage of familiarity — at least by analogy. Lacking this analogical quality, the practice of acupuncture languished, especially in Britain, despite the encouraging tones in which it too was initially reported. The eye-witness authority of Ten Rhyne and Kaemp-fer, which eventually tempted the French to experiment with acupuncture, evidently left the mass of British practitioners unmoved.


Chinese Medicine Eighteenth Century Medical Press Teenth Century Universal History 
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    Anon, The Modern Part of the Universal History, Vol. 4 (London, 1759), 647.Google Scholar
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    Erasmus Darwin actually used the term ‘acupuncture’ in 1794. In Darwin, Zoonomia; or the laws of organic life, 3rd edn, Vol. 3 (London, 1801), 254Google Scholar
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    Coley, ‘A Case of Tympanites, in an Infant, relieved by the Operation of the Paracentesis. With Remarks on the Case; and a Critical Analysis of the Sentiments of the Principal Authors who have written on the Disease. To which is subjoined an Account of the Operation of the Acupuncture, as Practised by the Japanese in the Diseases analogous to the Tympany’, The Medical and Physical Journal, 7 (1802): 235–8.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Roberta E. Bivins 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberta E. Bivins
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for the History of Science, Technology and MedicineUniversity of ManchesterUK

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