Miriam Lee

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper”

– T.S. Eliot, 1888 – 1965, from The Hollow Men

Miriam Lee who began her healing career as a Chinese nurse midwife and later as a master acupuncturist practicing in China, Singapore and Northern California nearly single handedly championed the legalization of acupuncture in California which eventually has spread throughout most states. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s she was the teacher of nearly 70% of the acupuncturists in North America. While on a Mediterranean cruise through the Greek islands, I learned that Miriam passed away while living in retirement with her family in Southern California.

I am one of the many who owe Miriam a debt of gratitude for the heroic pioneering work she did politically to begin the process of establishing acupuncture as a respected licensed profession and for the many years that she put up with my unorthodox appearance as a long haired hippie mountain man to patiently allow me to learn from her. Later, like she did for many others, she opened her busy Palo Alto clinic where she would indefatigably treat 10 patients every hour, 100 patients a day she graciously allowed I and later my daughter, Shasta, to follow her around treating while she treated patients of all ethnic background with conditions ranging from the common cold, arthritis, cancer to congestive heart failure.

Like many living in California through the late 1960’s, my interest in acupuncture grew out of my close affiliation and involvement with the counterculture movement of those exciting and turbulent times. I was living in a commune called Black Bear Ranch with a number of people who strived to grow and gather all our own food, initiate birthing of our babies at the ranch, educate our children, and otherwise live a life based on communal interdependence with conscious awareness of our interdependence with nature. As we learned of the bounty that nature provided for our sustenance and would continue to provide if we treated her with respect we quite naturally developed an avid interest in effective and safe natural healing using mostly the plants and trees in our environment. Thus at Black Bear Ranch, I found myself unconsciously drawn into the profound mysteries of herbal and other natural healing modalities as I assumed the name “Tierra” meaning “earth” and the role of village healer.

I remember how at one point we all found resonance with an important book circulating through the commune, entitled, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village by William Hinton. In it, we learned of practical and inexpensive methods of health care implemented in China that as with ourselves, included the use of herbs and acupuncture administered by a cadre of what were then known as barefoot doctors. The barefoot doctors received enough training during a short course sponsored by the government to roam the countryside to administer to most of the common medical problems found there. Out of this a wonderfully practical textbook was engendered, that is still available today called “A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual”. Unlike the Traditional Chinese Medical doctors of the cities or Western trained medical doctors, the barefoot doctors relied mostly on locally growing herbs and weeds, many of which are not to be found in the standard imperial materia medica used by TCM doctors but happen to include many of the common weeds and healing plants used for 100’s of years in Europe and North America. We were particularly intrigued however not only with the use of herbs by the Chinese but the use of a previously unknown system of healing based on acupuncture and moxabustion and oather associated traditional healing methods. Around the same time medical doctors and representatives of the media were beginning to take an interest and tout some of the benefits of acupuncture. This first occurred mostly in the UK and led to a Professor Worseley becoming one of the principle exponents and teachers attracting students from the European continent and North America and a few who could afford the expense from the wilderness commune where I lived known as Black Bear Ranch (you might enjoy viewing the documentary of Black Bear Ranch called “Commune”).

Those who first traveled from Black Bear to the UK to learn acupuncture were Efrem and Harriet Korngold and Efrem’s father, Murray. Upon returning they would practice on the residents of the ranch and teach me what they learned. It was from such straight forward organic beginnings that acupuncture arose in North America. At the time, none of us even remotely conceived of it as a profession but simply as a skill that we could use to help each other.

Moving forward a couple of years, I had moved to San Francisco where I was teaching and practicing herbal medicine and administering acupuncture to a few patients. We were all eager to learn more and then we heard of Miriam Lee who was practicing and teaching acupuncture in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco. We would avidly scrape together from meager financial resources the reasonable fees that Miriam would charge for her weekend classes. We gradually came to learn that Miriam had been and continued to be actively involved with lobbying the California legislature and governor to make it a legal profession. It was a steep uphill battle lead by Miriam and a lobbyist named Art Krause, that a few times caused Miriam to be arrested for practicing medicine without a license with brief periods of incarceration. Each time this occurred 100’s of Miriam’s patients who she had helped, would rally to her defense. Finally this struggle culminated in 1975 with Governor Jerry Brown signing a law legalizing the practice of acupuncture as a licensed profession. A few of her students including myself and later my acupuncturist daughter, Shasta Tierra (http://www.wayofwellness.net/ ) had the privilege to spend a few days each week with Miriam in her clinic where she treated on the average of 10 patients an hour and 100 patients daily.
There is no question that Miriam Lee was mostly responsible for bringing this about and perhaps without even knowing and apart from the many of us who had the privilege to directly learn from this dauntless and remarkably patient woman, I think it would be a shame for us to allow the passing of such a heroic champion of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in North America to go unnoticed. There are now literally hundreds of 1000’s of patients, acupuncturists and others who have and continue to experience the benefits of this revered ancient Chinese healing modality thanks to the heroic pioneering efforts of Miriam Lee.

Miriam Lee (left) with her student, Susan Johnson, L.Ac.
Photo taken from: www.tungspoints.com/miriamlee

To learn more about Miriam Lee, her life, contribution to Chinese medicine, her teachings, books and pivotal role she played in helping TCM to achieve the respectable status of a licensed profession I recommend the following sites:




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