Tag Archives: History

The history of placebo

St Jerome: Placebo Domino in regione vivorum

Here’s some history!

From Plato right down to ‘open label’ or ‘honest’ placebos, this counter-intuitive cure has found ready prescribers and users. And let’s not forget the Bible. In Saint Jerome’s fourth-century translation of the Bible into Latin, Verse 9 of Psalm 114 became: placebo Domino in regione vivorum. “Placebo” means “I will please”, so the verse in English reads: “I will please the Lord in the land of the living.”

The first directly medical implementation of placebo treatment is recorder in 1752 by the Scottish obstetrician William Smellie, who wrote, ““… It will be convenient to prescribe some innocent Placemus, that she may take between whiles, to beguile the time and please her imagination”.

“Whither placebo?

“For centuries, the word “placebo” was closely linked to deception and pleasing people. Recent studies of open-label placebos show that they need not be deceptive to work. Contrariwise, studies of placebos show that they are not inert or invariable and the basis for the current World Medical Association position has been undermined. The recent history of placebos seems to pave the way for more placebo treatments in clinical practice and fewer in clinical trials.”

“Placebo Politics”

So now we have ‘placebo politics’, meaning “elevating or reducing the status of this or that group through symbolic actions that won’t have much if any material impact on policy.” In this article the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreements is seen as placebo politics: it won’t make any difference because the agreement was only ever a voluntary one and it’s “already being flouted”. Why, then, invoke the placebo response? Perhaps … for votes at home?