The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

De Acupunctura: Willem ten Rhijne and Bringing Eastern Medicine to Europe

I am continually in awe of the depth and breadth of knowledge that our readers possess. Y’all are truly excellent.

Yes, the answer to the Crocodile Mystery is, as several people answered, a chart of the acupuncture points on the head.

Here is a slightly wider shot of this part of the diagram:

Acupuncture points around the head and ear. (157- 111q, figure 3)

And here is the diagram in full, showing the points on the back side of the body:

Acupuncture points on the back side of the body. (157- 111q, figure 3)

This diagram, along with several others, appears in a book written by the Dutch physician Willem ten Rhijne,1 published in London in 1683 (but more on that in a moment). It contains what seems to be the first comprehensive (including diagrams such as the one shown above) explanation of acupuncture and moxa to appear in the west.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical technique of inserting needles at specific points on the body, along channels (sometimes called meridians) where the body’s energy (qi) flows.2 These points can also be stimulated through simple pressure and massage (often known today as acupressure) or through the application of heat, in a process known as moxa or moxibustion.

Willem ten Rhijne was a physician by training and a botanist by inclination. Beginning in 1673 (at the tender age of 26), he was employed by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, better known to us as the Dutch East India Company) and stationed at their outpost in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). In 1674, he was sent to serve as physician at the outpost of Dejima, the Dutch port in Japan for two centuries. While there, ten Rhijne spent a lot of time in a knowledge exchange with his Japanese counterparts. Although there was definitely a language barrier, ten Rhijne seems to have had the patience to work through it and ended up picking up as much of Japanese medical practice (much of which had been adapted from the Chinese) as he did providing knowledge of western medical practices.3

After ten Rhijne returned to Batavia, he wrote to the Royal Society in London and basically said “hey, I’ve written up a bunch of what I found out in Japan, are you interested in publishing it?” The folks at the Royal Society were definitely interested. They had already heard about moxa in a somewhat roundabout manner: the Dutch diplomat, secretary, and all around knowledgeable fellow, Contantijn Huygens had written to his friends in London about a wonderful treatment for gout that he had experienced—moxa. Huygens had heard about it from his countryman, and colleague of ten Rhijne, Herman Busschoff, who was also a VOC physician stationed in Batavia.

Busschoff even wrote a book on the subject, a few years before, which was published in English in 1676:

Title page for the English version of Busschoff’s treatise on the use of moxa for treating gout. (B6257)

There is a wonderful frontispiece on this edition, with a great detail of someone about to apply the moxa stick to the gouty foot:

Frontispiece, B6257
Hot foot? Nope, moxa treatment!

Armed with this prior knowledge of the use of moxa, the Royal Society agreed to publish ten Rhijne’s work. They got a bit more than they bargained for, however. Ten Rhijne’s book is actually 5 treatise all together, plus numerous illustrations and diagrams.

Always an overachieve, ten Rhijne crammed 5 works into one publication. (157- 111q title page)

The second section, De Acupunctura, coins the term “acpunctura” (translated, of course, into English, as acupuncture) and provides the first detailed account of the methodology and reasons behind the practice. It’s amazing the information and diagrams are as accurate as they are: this is information that started out in written Chinese, was translated into Japanese by one of the Japanese physicians, was then translated from Japanese into Dutch by one of the translators working with the VOC, and once more from Dutch to Latin by ten Rhijne. And, in the case of the diagrams, there had to be a translation from whatever written or sketched information ten Rhijne provided into the final visual form.

A discerning viewer will note in the diagram shown above, and in the one below, there are often multiple spots marked for each point on the channel. The darker (or filled in) spot is the “true” point on the channel, while the others are secondary associated points.

Acupuncture points on the front of the body. (157- 111q figure 2)
Detail of the points on the arm from Figure 2.

Ten Rhijne also made sure to include an image of the acupuncture needle itself, as well as the small mallet that was sometimes used to tap the needle into the point. (Today, the sterilized needles often come in a little plastic tube that helps guide and insert it into the point.)

Acupuncture needle (made of gold or silver, according to ten Rhijne’s text), and the mallet used for insertion. (157- 111q figure 6)

After the publication of ten Rhijne’s treatises, the Royal Society (perhaps in an attempt to drum up interest in the volume) published a lengthy 14 page review/summary in the June 10, 1683 issue of Philosophical Transactions.

As for ten Rhijne himself, he spent the rest of his life (until he died in 1700) with the VOC in and around Batavia. I cannot find evidence either way about whether or not he ever saw his book in print, but he certainly was aware of its existence and surely must have been pleased that he was able to contribute in some small way to the knowledge of eastern medicine in Europe.

  1. The good doctor’s name is a source of much pain amongst English writers. I’ve seen it spelled Rhyne, Ryne, Rhine, and Rine. I’m going with the Dutch spelling, since that’s what the LoC Name Authority File uses.
  2. The Mayo Clinic has a nice overview of the process if you are not familiar with it.
  3. For a more complete account of ten Rhijne’s time in Japan, see Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age, (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 351-355.

One Comment

  • Regarding Willem ten Rhinje, another good source is “Western Medical Pioneers in Feudal Japan”, by John Z. Bowers. There are also some Dutch publications, which I have not seen translated. Ten Rhinje was an astute observer and scholar, with publications on botany, navigation, anthropology, and of course medicine. His scholarly dissertations on leprosy, the Hottentot society of the Cape of Good Hope, and green tea remain as classics to this day. During the latter part of his life(1676-1700) he was a diplomat and governor in Batavia, or who we now know as Jakarta. Unfortunately, little is known of those years.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)