Life points

For legal scholar Clare Dalton, a sharp turn from academia to acupuncture was a natural fit

Clare Dalton studied in England and in Florida before she earned her certification in Five Element Acupuncture. Clare Dalton studied in England and in Florida before she earned her certification in Five Element Acupuncture. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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Robin Parker lay on the massage-style table as the acupuncturist took her hand and felt her pulse. Parker, 53, has allergies, and her throat was itchy. She’d been here before, for sessions that had relieved her stress and stopped an incipient cold.

Parker has never liked needles, but she didn’t seem to mind the tiny ones that were being inserted above her waist. After treatment, she reported that her sinuses and throat were symptom-free.

“I know I’m in healing hands here,’’ said Parker, who lives in Cambridge.

Those hands belong to Clare Dalton, who made a name nationally when she sued Harvard in 1987 for sex discrimination in denying her tenure at the law school. Usually such suits are aimed at gaining tenure, but Dalton had no intention of returning to Harvard. In 1988, she went across the Charles River to Northeastern University Law School and used her settlement money to start a domestic violence institute devoted to research, education, and service on behalf of victims. She oversaw law students who represent battered women in court, and she has received numerous awards for her work in domestic violence law and feminist legal thought.

A year ago, however, Dalton left academia for acupuncture, an odd career path for a distinguished legal scholar. “As a teenager, I was really interested in Eastern philosophy and alternative healing,’’ says Dalton, 60. “Now I feel as if I’ve gone back to the 17-year-old me and am taking the path I didn’t take then.’’

The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture is used to treat everything from pain to stress, arthritis to infertility. Thin needles are placed in various points of the body because, adherents believe, such points regulate energy flow and enhance healing. Though skeptics scoff, some insurance companies cover the treatment.

Dalton became seriously interested in the discipline in 2004, after a friend recommended it for her chronic back pain and diverticulitis.

“It was miraculous, not just because how quickly my back and gut began to mend, but it came with a new understanding of where sources of stress were,’’ Dalton says. “I’m no stranger to therapy, yet here were things that those laborious processes hadn’t uncovered and needles were doing it.’’

She wanted to learn more about it so, like a good academic, she returned to school, at the College of Traditional Acupuncture in her native England, where she had attended Oxford University. Three years ago she cut back to teaching part time at Northeastern and began studying part time in England. Her studies then took her to the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture in Florida, one of only three schools in the United States that offer training in that less traditional form of acupuncture.

“[Five Element] is more holistic,’’ Dalton says. “It has a stronger orientation toward acupuncture as a treatment for the body, mind, and spirit.’’

With soft waves of graying hair, long skirt, loose T-shirt, and dangly earrings, she looks the part of a Cambridge academic, though she now lives in Fort Point Channel. Five Element Acupuncture, with an emphasis on the emotional as well as physical aspects of healing, was the treatment Dalton herself had received.

She finally earned a master’s degree in Five Element, took the exams, and was certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. “Those are the hardest tests I’ve ever taken,’’ says Dalton, “including law exams.’’ In Massachusetts, the Board of Registration in Medicine’s Acupuncture Committee governs licensing.

Her course work included several Western science classes, and she was tested weekly on hundreds of medical terms, body parts, and medications.

“I used to console myself with the thought that I was protecting myself from early Alzheimer’s,’’ she says. “At the beginning I did have real doubts about whether I could do it. . . . But it got easier. Those mental muscles just needed retraining.’’

Dalton has offices in Cambridge and in Fort Point Channel. With soft lighting and Five Element charts on the walls, the cozy spaces are quite a change from the classrooms where she presided for decades.

At a first appointment, Dalton will diagnose a client’s “home element’’ — either fire, earth, metal, water, or wood. “It’s the element in people that is their greatest potential and greatest vulnerability,’’ she says. “It’s the element most likely to go out of balance when they become ill.’’ Her diagnostic clues include the sound of a person’s voice, the color around their eyes and mouth, their scent, and the way they talk about their health issues, family, relationships, and work.

A fire person values connections and relationships, Dalton explains, but with appropriate boundaries. “If you know someone who feels they constantly need to entertain their friends, or play the class clown, or who seems to laugh inordinately, that would be one flavor of fire being out of balance,’’ she says.

A water person, on the other hand, is about depth, fear, and wisdom, she says. “So the person who is full of foreboding or anxiety because of all those ‘what-ifs?’ might be an example of water out of balance.’’

Knowing the client’s basic element helps her choose the places to insert the needles. “If I’m treating a patient with a migraine whose home element is fire I might choose different points than someone with a migraine whose home element is water.’’

Dalton — who since 2005 has been legally separated from her husband, Robert Reich, the US secretary of labor in the Clinton administration — says their two sons have had different reactions to her metamorphosis.

Adam Reich, 30, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California Berkeley, says he was able to adjust to his mother’s transition because it was gradual. “That being said, the first time she started talking about her chi was something of a surprise,’’ he says. “But at this point, I’m completely on board, and have had the pleasure of being treated myself.’’

Dalton says that her younger son views her leaving academia as a vindication of his similar decision.

“I dropped out of high school when I was 16 in order to pursue show business,’’ says Sam Reich, 26, who is head of original content for “I’d like to think that I inspired her to be braver, but she’s always been brave. I mean, this woman sued Harvard. Maybe I just inspired her to be more reckless.’’ At her graduation from acupuncture school, Sam says, he got teary-eyed “in a weird child-parent pride reversal.’’

Dalton also gets emotional when talking about her new gig. “I love it,’’ she repeats, each time placing her hand on her chest. “I love working one on one with people who are heroic in the ways they are putting their lives together in the wake of difficulties and pain.’’

Does she miss law?

“What I miss is teaching,’’ she says. “But I felt it was time to hand that work on to a new generation and that I had made my contribution.’’

Lois Kanter, whom Dalton hired 20 years ago to help develop the domestic violence institute, knew of Dalton’s growing interest in the healing arts, so she wasn’t too surprised about her career change. Still, she did ask: Why acupuncture?

“Her answer made perfect sense, and was so consistent with my view of her as a person rather than a legal colleague,’’ says Kanter, director of the domestic violence institute. “She said that she has always wanted to be a ‘hands-on’ healer, and this change in career would provide her with the opportunity to work directly with individuals in ways that she believed could really make a change in their lives.’’

Dalton certainly has changed her own life, and she believes many workers in her generation are doing the same. For some, it may be volunteering, or working part time, or freelancing.

“But for others it may be as it has been for me — an opportunity to walk back to an earlier fork in the road and set off down a path not taken,’’ she says.

Bella English can be reached at

‘Now I feel as if I’ve gone back to the
17-year-old me and am taking the path
I didn’t take then.’

CLARE DALTON, on changing careers