Placebo, a historical perspective

Efrat Czerniak, Michael Davidson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Substances and interventions with no specific therapeutic effect have been in use since the dawn of history. The term placebo has first been mentioned in the Scriptures, but it was not until the 19th century that it appeared in a medical context. Although lay people like Voltaire, and physicians such as Sir William Osler, have raised the possibility that much of what physicians did had no specific therapeutic effect, this notion was not shared by the public at large or by the medical profession. It was only by the end of the 18th century that a placebo-controlled trial has been conducted, repudiating the therapeutic effect of mesmerism. The advent, in the late 1940s, of effective treatments, which also had serious adverse effects, made the distinction between placebo and putative, active drug effects more relevant and urgent, and cleared the way for double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials. This in turn triggered an ethical debate on the use of placebo, both in research and in clinical practice. Anthropologists, sociologists, physiologists, and medical researchers are all focusing their efforts on understanding the mechanism, role and modulating factors of placebo.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)770-774
Number of pages5
JournalEuropean Neuropsychopharmacology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • History
  • Placebo
  • RCT


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