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Placebos: Learn the Real History of Fake Medicine

Today, a placebo is what medical researchers give patients in control groups in studies. But the placebo has played an important role in medical history. Fusion correspondent Jessica Roy explains.

The word “placebo” is Latin for “I shall please.” The word was first used in the 1300s to refer to professional mourners. Those were people who were hired to attend funerals and grieve in place of actual family members and friends.

During the Renaissance, doctors and philosophers believed in a magical mind-body connection. Doctors believed it was best to withhold information from very ill patients. If the patient thought they would recover, that mind-body connection would make it so they would recover.

In medicine, the word placebo originally meant “any medicine adapted more to please than to benefit the patient.” That definition was listed in the 1811 edition of Quincy’s Lexicon-Medicum, a medical dictionary. But using fake medicine to treat real issues wasn’t a new practice even back then. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote that one of the most successful physicians he had ever known admitted he used more bread crumb pills, drops of dyed water, and wood powders than any other kind of actual “medicine.”

A doctor named John Haygarth was the first to test whether placebos actually helped. In the early 1800s, a popular cure for all kinds of illnesses involved poking people in the face, mouth and nose with solid metal rods. These rods were called Perkins tractors. Haygarth treated five patients with the metal rods and noted that four of them felt better afterward. The next day, he treated the same patients with rods that were secretly filled with wood. The result: Four of out five of them felt better afterward.

About a hundred years later, famed physician Richard Cabot said he and every other doctor had been taught to use placebos like bread crumb pills and plain water in place of actual treatments.

CREDIT: Jessica Roy, Hector Batista

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