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Getting the Needle - Reminiscences of an early UK Acupuncture Student

by Arthur E Bromley(more info)

listed in acupuncture, originally published in issue 69 - October 2001

The disbelief in my colleague's voice was only too obvious, and I was sorry I had told him that I had enrolled as one of the first students at the very first Acupuncture College in the UK.

The college was in Warwickshire, and was only open at weekends (Saturday and Sunday) and only admitted qualified medical practitioners, such as doctors, dentists, vets, chiropodists, senior nurses, etc., plus, of course, my own profession of osteopathy.

The year was 1967 and hardly anyone in the UK had ever heard of the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture.

Image of man receiving acupuncture

At 6 am on that first Saturday morning I headed toward the Midlands, as I was to do every weekend for the next three years, to take my place in class not knowing what on earth to expect.

I noted twelve men and six women, whose ages ranged from 25 to 50 years. At once, I endeavoured to weigh up my fellow students with whom I would be spending the next three years at weekends.

As would be expected of a gathering such as this, the extreme extrovert stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, a man in his early forties, who, I soon learned, was a chiropodist, and who was to keep us all chuckling for the full three years, as he deliberately misconstrued everything our tutors told us.

With pens and writing pads at the ready we took our seats.

The Dean of the college entered. "My name is Dr Wilson, I shall be taking some of the classes in conjunction with my other tutors," he said. "You will be meeting the rest of them as we go on."

The Dean then gave us a rundown on the curriculum. "You will find it hard going, and, for the first year or so, you will be very confused, until it all starts to fit together." He paused. "The GPs particularly will find it hard to digest." I saw the three GPs look at one another, then one of them stood up. "Why should we, in particular, find it especially hard?" The Dean laughed, "Well you see, you have been trained in a Western style of medicine and completely orthodox, while the training in acupuncture is completely the opposite. You will have to unlearn a lot you have learnt in order to understand fully the Oriental concept and philosophy of this method of healing. The alternate practitioner such as the osteopath or naturopath will probably make out a little easier." I could see that the GPs were unimpressed over this, and believed he was talking through the back of his neck.

The Dean continued: "You will learn all about yin and yang, or positive and negative, and how all things on earth must have these two polarities completely balanced if harmony, in all aspects of life, is to be attained." The Dean had more to say: "You will learn how to locate every one of the 1,300 acu-points in the body even when blindfolded, and what depth each point is below the surface of the skin, and what result one would expect on needling any one of these points." The first day passed quickly.

On the following day, Sunday 9.30 am, we were all assembled in our seats to 'let battle commence'. The tutor for today was Mr Benall, a tall, angular gentleman with a quiet air about him, and a voice to match. "Today we are going to locate all the acu-points connected to the colon. There are, in all, 40 of these and they are on the arms, shoulders, neck and face, half the points on the left side and the other half on the opposite side. Each of you must get a partner, and then expose your arms, shoulders and neck." We paired off. I worked with a young man who had been sitting next to me.

The gentle voice spoke: "I hope each one of you brought the black felt pen you were told to acquire, so that you can mark the skin. The first point I want you to mark on your partner is near the nail of the first finger, here" pointing to it on his hand.

"Excuse me Mr Benall," the voice came from the back of the class, "How can my partner mark my skin?" We all, in a body, turned round to see who had asked this question, then shrieks of laughter filled the small room. The young man who owned the voice was totally black. When the merriment died down, we all looked at our tutor. "M'm, it does pose a bit of a problem," he said, "and you can't buy white felt pens."

"We could whitewash him first" – the chiropodist was at it again. More laughter. "I've got an idea," one of the ladies said, "If we had a packet of confetti we could stick small pieces of the paper on his skin."

"Where would we buy confetti on a Sunday?" someone said. "All the weddings were yesterday."

Titters all round. Someone produced a sheet of white paper and scissors and proceeded to cut small round pieces about a quarter inch in diameter.

For the next two hours, each of us had a great time placing a black spot exactly on each acu-point on both arms, shoulders and face. When each student had completed marking all the 40 points on his partner, we were told to link each spot with a black line, starting with the spot at the side of the nose, down the face, over the shoulders and down the arms to the hand. There were huge grins and much merriment when we looked at each other. The Red Indians could not have painted themselves any better, in the event of a raid on the Palefaces. The dark skinned young man, with his line of white paper spots stuck on with his partner's saliva, looked more like a Christmas tree than anything else.

The weekend finished at 5 pm whereupon we all converged on the washroom to get rid of the black lines and spots we had so laboriously painted on each other. The water was cold, and the ink just refused to come off, no matter how hard we scrubbed. We gave it up, our skins red and sore with the effort. "See you all at the next weekend," I waved as I made my way out towards the car park.

It had been a great weekend, although I hadn't understood very much of it, but no doubt I was not the only student with this line of thought. We all knew it would be months before any of it started to make sense. Just before I came to the motorway, I saw ahead a female figure watching me approach, her hand movement indicating she wanted a lift. Usually I ignore hitchhikers, but today I felt happy and unusually generous. I pulled up alongside.

"Where are you going?"

"To Birmingham," she replied.

"OK, hop in."

She was about eighteen years old, well dressed, pretty, not the type one would expect to be hitching a lift.

As I started to move off, she settled into the passenger seat and then turned to look at me. A strange thing happened; her eyes widened and a look of horror came over her face as she shrank back into the far side corner of the seat. "What's up with her?" I wondered. Then I suddenly realized what was wrong. She must have thought she was travelling with a nutcase. I still looked like a Red Indian brave with the black lines running vertically down my face, neck and hands. Trying to laugh it off, I said, "Sorry about these black lines on my face, they wouldn't wash off." I realized how unconvincing this must have sounded. "You see I am a student at the Acupuncture College, and we paint our bodies to learn things about ourselves." How corny this must have sounded to this young girl, who had never even heard of acupuncture.

As I wasn't making things any better I lapsed into silence. The girl just stared ahead, and I was relieved when we arrived at the Birmingham turn-off. She jumped out with a quick "Thank you," and was gone.

As the months passed, we started slowly to make sense of this complex therapy of acupuncture.

We were starting to answer the questions put to us by the tutors in a more intelligent manner, and were even asking sensible questions. A pattern appeared to be taking shape in the classroom. It was becoming obvious who the brainy types were, those fortunate people who always knew the answers to everything.

One young man stood out as brilliant, Brian White, aged about 25, well dressed and well spoken. He was never stumped to answer any question, and when it came to asking the tutors a question, he would come up with one that I never would have thought of in a thousand years. One could see the eyes of the tutors light up with pleasure whenever they spoke to him. I'll bet they wished they had a class full of types like him. I very quickly, and enviously, nicknamed him 'Brainy Brian'.

At the end of the first 12 months of our training, we sat our entrance exam, a title I never did understand, except to understand how bitterly disappointed any student must have been when failing this exam after already having attended the college for one year. Fortunately all my class passed!

The second year of our training began, and, as weekend succeeded weekend, we felt we were getting somewhere at last.

We learned the location of all the 1,300 acu-points, what the value of each point was, how each was linked to its own internal organ, and how, by putting a needle into the correct point, we could influence organs such as the heart, the liver, lungs, spleen, etc., etc.

'Brainy Brian' maintained his high standard of work.

At the end of the second year we all sat our second year exam. I was very pleased with my result this time. We now had just about 12 months to go before the final theoretical and practical examination.

The next few months were to be of a more practical nature, and the adrenalin was really beginning to flow. We were now really looking forward to the day when, hopefully, we would receive the licence to stick needles into our patients to make them well. But in the two years we had been training, not one of us had stuck one needle into anyone, so it was with great anticipation that we all looked forward to inserting our very first needle.

Having each purchased one dozen needles, we were shown how to insert one into each other. Because students are expendable and not the same as real, live patients, it was with a great deal of excitement that we were informed that during the last few weeks of our practical sessions we were to treat patients who had been booked in for treatment.

At 10 am our patients started to arrive, and eight of us were allocated one patient each. My patient, a lady from Birmingham in her early forties, turned out to be a migraine sufferer. I showed her to a cubicle. Time was not of the essence, so I spent the next one-and-a-half hours giving Mrs Burgess a full-scale Oriental diagnosis exactly as I had been taught. First, I had to ask many questions, and then I palpated the lady, front and back. I looked into her eyes and at the colour of her skin, felt for a pulse in her umbilical, checked her blood pressure and took her body temperature. I asked about her waterworks, her bowels and the colour of the stools, and felt the texture of the hair. Everything was recorded on my case history sheet. Finally – the apex of Oriental diagnosis – checking the patient's pulses. On each wrist one must palpate six pulses, which will indicate the state of the internal organs, and whether any organ is lacking in energy or too full of energy.

The Dean visited each one of us in turn at intervals, and under his watchful eye I inserted my first needle. He seemed pleased and told me to carry on, then he left. At this point an unearthly scream rent the building, vibrating around the walls.

We all froze.

The sound had come from one of the cubicles. We all knew what had happened – one of our members had committed the vilest of crimes known to acupuncture, that of giving pain on the insertion of a needle. But who had perpetrated the crime? The Dean was seen rushing towards the cubicle in question.

Yes! We did find out who had been responsible, who had 'let the side down', and in all the years since then, I never did see among the list of licensed practitioners the name of 'Brainy Brian'.

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About Arthur E Bromley

Arthur Bromley, DO, Lic. Ac., B. Phys., is a retired doctor of psychiatrics, osteopath and acupunturist. He was born in Wallasey, Wirral, and had his osteopathy and acupuncture practice in that town for many years. He now lives in quiet retirement in Spital, Wirral. He can be contacted by writing to 4 Granby Crescent, Spital, Wirral, Merseyside, C63 9NY, or Tel: 0151 3340088.

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