The underestimated power of the placebo

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc

Note: The following essay is taken from a longer essay in the book 'Memories 3by Dr Vernon Coleman

Everyone has heard of witch doctors casting spells. It is well known, and well documented, that seemingly healthy individuals have died within weeks or even days of being cursed by a witch doctor of some kind. The power of the mind is difficult to under-estimate. A man or woman in a white coat can be, unwittingly, just as powerful as a witch doctor dressed in feathers and performing a mystical dance.

The word ‘placebo’ has been used since 1811 to denote a medicine given more to please than to benefit the patient. It is perhaps a rather unfair definition, for though the placebo may have no active effect it may nevertheless have a definite and useful psychological effect.

An alternative name sometimes used is ‘dummy tablet’ as the constituent of a placebo is traditionally nothing more than lactose or starch. As well as being used to treat patients, placebos can be used to test patients and to test other remedies. Sir William Gull, a 19th century physician who, annoyed and disturbed by claims for many treatments said to be useful for rheumatic fever, published a tongue in cheek paper extolling the virtues of mint as a cure. He selected mint at random but was amazed to see that his mint water treatment became fashionable and apparently effective.

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