Discovering the Placebo

A very short book excerpt

Joe McKendry

Henry Beecher was a professor at Harvard who joined the U.S. Army during World War II and served as a doctor on battlefields in Italy. There, in makeshift field hospitals, he saw countless soldiers arrive with broken bones jutting through the skin, lacerations, and assorted “penetrating wounds.” Despite their trauma, three-quarters of them reported only slight to moderate pain, or none at all. Back home, where Beecher worked as the chief anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, he’d seen civilians with similarly severe injuries display far greater levels of distress. Intrigued by this discrepancy, Beecher reviewed his data and found that 83 percent of civilians requested pain relief upon arriving at the hospital, whereas only 32 percent of soldiers did.

Why were soldiers so much less likely to need medication? Beecher reasoned that to a soldier, the hospital signified an extraction from danger and distress—“a ticket to safety.” He might lose a limb, but he wasn’t going home in a flag-wrapped box. For civilians, however, hospitals marked “the beginning of disaster,” a menacing threshold between a predictable existence and a challenging life of uncertainty. Beecher found himself considering the possibility that anytime he gave painkillers, part of the resulting relief was not from the drugs themselves, but from the patients’ conviction that they were going to feel better. Compelled by this logic, he set up the first program to study placebo effects and in 1955 published “The Powerful Placebo.” He reported that in a sample of more than 1,000 patients, placebos relieved the symptoms (not only pain) of a full 35 percent.

—Adapted from The Magic Feather Effect: The Science of Alternative Medicine and the Surprising Power of Belief, by Melanie Warner, published by Scribner