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Complement Ther Med. 2013 Apr;21(2):94-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2012.06.002. Epub 2012 Jul 9.

The early history of the placebo.

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Institut für Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung, Straussweg 17, D-70184 Stuttgart, Germany.


In the late 18th century the term "placebo" became part of medical jargon. In contrast to the prevailing opinion that it was the Scottish physician and pharmacologist William Cullen (1710-1790) who introduced this expression into medical language in 1772, the credit must be given to another English physician, Alexander Sutherland (born before 1730 - died after 1773). The main reason for administering placebos in late 18th-century medical practice was to satisfy the patient's demand and his expectations. Another reason was obstinancy of the patient: the motivation behind such prescriptions may be summarized as prescribing inert drugs for the satisfaction of the patient's mind, and not with the view of producing any direct remedial effect. In most cases these 18th century physicians did not administer "pure" placebos but resorted to any kind of medicine which they thought simple, feeble, or altogether powerless, non-perturbing medicines. Today we make the distinction between pure placebos (substances with no pharmacological effect, e.g. sugar pills) and impure placebos (substances with pharmacological effect but not on the condition being treated). In the 18th century those physicians who prescribed placebo usually thought of drugs which were considered not very effective in the particular case, e.g. a mild ointment. At the same time, only very few brilliant minds came up with the ingenious idea of using inert substances as placebo. An alternative to milk sugar used as placebo in homeopathy was breadpills. Recent research suggests that expectancy is an integral part of the placebo effect. As early as 1775 the English bishop John Douglas (1721-1807) anticipated the findings of modern research on the placebo effect.

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