How the placebo effect is so powerful it was even used in WWII

How the placebo effect is so powerful it was even used in WWII

A placebo is a substance that lacks curative action but produces a therapeutic effect if the patient takes it convinced that it is a really effective medicine. As early as the beginning of the century, researchers were aware of this effect . So, during World War II, it was taken advantage of by some doctors.

For example, the American anesthetist Henry Beecher , prominent at the front, used the placebo with wounded soldiers because he did not have enough morphine to ease everyone’s pain.


While the allied forces repelled Nazi attacks during World War II, medical services tended to stay with opiate-based painkillers due to the high number of wounds suffered by soldiers . Because Beecher feared killing the soldiers by causing possible cardiac arrest if he operated on them without resorting to a pain reliever, he tried an alternative solution.

After telling the soldiers that he was going to give them morphine, when in fact he was not, but simply a liquid devoid of any analgesic effects, he discovered that the patients reacted as if they had actually received morphine.

Beecher, author of The Powerful Placebo (1955), surprised the medical community by scientifically studying this effect . A study carried out by the University of Michigan Health System, for example, explained the strong physiological effects that some patients present when using placebos.

In the 1990s, scientists like Irving Kirsch became leaders in research into the effects of placebo. An effect that not only changed how the patient felt, but also had proven physical effects: for example, it could return a swollen jaw to a normal state or heal a stomach ulcer, as explained by Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections , which questions the efficacy of many antidepressants, placing them at a similar level to a placebo:

The numbers showed that 25% of the effects of antidepressants were due to natural recovery, 50% to the story they had told you about them, and only 25% to the chemicals themselves.

A study in the United Kingdom reveals that 97% of doctors have admitted to having given some type of placebo to their patients at least once , either at the request of the patient himself or on his own initiative to try to reassure him.