Placebo Time Line
1300– Was the first documented use of the term placebo. At that time it was used to refer to hired mourners at funerals that would initiate their wailings with “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum” which would translate to “I shall please the lord in the land of the living”.
1628– When an English scholar at Oxford University named Robert Burton, wrote “An empiric often times, and a silly chirurgeon, doth more strange cures than a rational physician…because the patient puts his confidence in him,” with this he indicated that at least by the Renaissance times physicians consistently acknowledged the power of imagination and expectation in regards to being able to affect bodily states.
1748– In 1748, Louis XVI appointed Benjamin Franklin as the american ambassador to France, so he could organize what is considered the first Placebo-controlled experiment. The king wanted to debunk a practice that had become very popular and was known as ‘Mesmerism.’
Franz Anton Mesmer claimed to have discovered an invisible magnetic force that flowed through all living beings, he argued that unblocking it could heal many ailments. In the trials testing his claims, various objects were either “magnetized” with Mesmer’s invisible force, or left untreated. Participants to the trials were put in front of these objects and if they responded to an untreated object, or didn’t respond to a treated object, researchers could rule out the claim. This lead to Mesmer being denounced as a fraud and placebos and lies became intertwined.
1785– This was when the definition of the placebo was described as “a commonplace method or medicine”, in the New Medical Dictionary.
1801– This was the year that Perkins Tractors were a common remedy for diseases. These were metallic rods that were applied to the body and were supposed to be able to relieve symptoms through the influence of the metal. To test their validity, Dr. John Haygarth applied imitation tractors made of wood and found that four out of five patients still experienced relief. He applied the metal tractors the next day and had identical results. He showed some awareness of the placebo effect when he said that “an important lesson in physic is here to be learnt, the wonderful and powerful influence of the passions of the of the mind upon the state and disorder of the body. This is too often overlooked in the cure of diseases.”
1807– Thomas Jefferson wrote about a “pious fraud” contending that “one of the most successful physicians I have ever known has assured me that he used bread pills, drops of colored water and powders of hickory ashes, than of all other medicines put together”.
1888– The Brown-Sequard Elixir was developed by the acclaimed scientist and endocrinologist Charles Brown-Sequard, and it came to be known as the “Elixir of life.” It was made from testicular blood and seminal fluid of dogs and guinea pigs and injected into humans. Brown-Sequard claimed that it improved mental concentration, induced greater physical strength and endurance and increased sexual function. This treatment became instantly popular and was used throughout the world, but was soon recognized as a placebo. This use of hormones to aid human health was considered to be the birth of modern endocrinology.
1903– Richard Cabot was an ethicist at Harvard and practiced medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He said he was brought up to use placebos, but ultimately concluded that “I have not yet found any case in which a lie does not do more harm than good”. He was strongly opposed to Placebo administration and felt that any deception between medical professionals and patients would lead to a loss of trust and general degradation of the relationship.
1920– Robert T Nelson, a shrewd businessman, sold small brass cylinders containing “vrilium” a mysterious substance that was supposedly radioactive. Worn around the neck, Nelson claimed it could radiate for 20 feet and kill bacteria and germs around the body. These “magic spikes” as they were popularly known, sold for $300 each and even the mayor of Chicago wore one. In 1950, it was revealed that the containers contained cheap rat poison and Nelson was found guilty of violating the food and drug act.
1955– Dr. Henry Beecher was one of the first modern physicians to recognize the therapeutic value of fake medication, as he wrote in a landmark paper “The powerful Placebo.” He found that soldiers in the Second World War experienced relief from pain with saline, which was given to them when morphine stock ran out. Beecher went on to create the double-blind design that is still used today to test new pharmaceutical drugs.
1957 – A new ‘wonder drug’ Krebiozen (a horse serum) was touted as a cure for cancer. The drug was given to one patient, ‘Mr. Wright’. who experienced a complete recovery. When the patient read reports about Krebiozen being “quack medicine” his tumours returned. His doctor dismissed the reports and told his patient that he had a new and improved version of the medication that, in truth, was simply distilled water. The patient’s tumours once again disappeared after the “drug” was administered. Two months later he read a more definitive report about the drug. The patient died a few days later.
1961– Walter Kennedy introduced the word Nocebo to refer to inert treatments which have the potential to cause a negative effect. Nocebo is latin for “I shall harm”.
2001 – Medical philosophers Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche of the University of Copenhagen proclaimed the placebo effect–one of the best-known but least understood curative processes at the time –a myth. After analyzing 114 placebo-controlled trials, they concluded that placebos are generally no more effective at relieving disease symptoms than no treatment at all. Critics of their work pointed out that their research lumped together disparate trials, some of which found a placebo effect, some of which did not.
2011– To confirm the importance of placebos in science, a program in placebo studies was established at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre Harvard Medical School called the ‘Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS)’.