The concept of placebos and their use in medical practice has a long and complex history. To provide a factual historic account, let’s delve into the origins and development of placebos, citing relevant references along the way.

The term “placebo” is derived from the Latin word meaning “I shall please.” Placebos are substances or treatments that have no specific therapeutic effect on a condition but may produce a beneficial effect through the patient’s belief in their efficacy. The history of placebos can be traced back to ancient civilizations.

  1. Ancient Civilizations: The use of placebos can be seen in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. Ancient physicians and healers often employed rituals, symbols, and inert substances to evoke a placebo effect. These practices were based on the belief that the mind played a crucial role in healing.Reference:
  2. Early Modern Era: The concept of placebos gained attention during the early modern era when physicians started using inert substances as a control in clinical trials. In the 18th century, the Scottish physician and researcher John Haygarth conducted a study on the effectiveness of a popular treatment called “Perkins tractors” for various diseases. He found that patients experienced similar improvements when treated with sham wooden tractors, demonstrating the power of belief in medical outcomes.Reference:
    • Haygarth, J. (1800). Of the Imagination, as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body; Exemplified by Fictitious Tractors, and Epidemical Convulsions. Johnson, J. Murray.
  3. Placebo-Controlled Trials: The development of placebo-controlled trials in the 20th century further contributed to the understanding and use of placebos in medicine. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) became the gold standard for evaluating new treatments. In these trials, a placebo group receives an inert substance or sham treatment, allowing researchers to assess the specific effects of the active treatment by comparing it to the placebo effect.Reference:
  4. Ethical Considerations: The use of placebos in clinical practice raised ethical concerns, particularly when an effective treatment was available. The Declaration of Helsinki, first adopted in 1964, and subsequent revisions established guidelines to protect the welfare of research participants. These guidelines emphasized the need to minimize the use of placebos when effective treatments existed.Reference:
    • World Medical Association. (2013). World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki: Ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. JAMA, 310(20), 2191–2194.

It is important to note that the use of placebos should adhere to ethical standards and be transparently communicated to patients. Contemporary medical practice emphasizes evidence-based treatments while acknowledging the potential psychological and contextual factors that contribute to the placebo effect.

While the historical account presented here provides an overview, further exploration into specific time periods or medical contexts may reveal additional details and nuances related to the evolution of placebos.