Mass delusions

Observations on scurvyAn article published in The Lancet in 1848 contains a remarkable and early example of the power of the placebo effect.  James Turnbull, a doctor at the Liverpool Northern Hospital, wrote an article about the history and effects of scurvy, the condition caused by a lack of vitamin C, for many centuries the scourge of sailors. It includes this gem:

During the siege of Breda, in Holland, in 1625, scurvy prevailed to a frightful extent amongst the besieged, owing to disappointments, and the use of unwholesome food, consisting of cheese, dried fish, and old rye, also dogs and horseflesh.

I must say this does not sound a terribly enticing diet. The siege of Breda took place during the Eighty Years’ War, when the Spanish army led by Ambrogio Spinola succeeded in taking the port town from the Dutch after ten months.

The influence which the mind exerts over the body in diseases generally, but especially in this, which seems to be more affected than almost any other by the exciting and depressing emotions, was shown in an extraordinary degree during this siege; for when the besieged were reduced to the lowest state of despair by the absence of any prospect of relief from without, and by the ravages of this disease, which was not checked by any of their remedies, the Prince of Orange wrote letters promising the men speedy relief, and at the same time sent medicines against the scurvy, said to be of great price, but of still greater efficacy.

The effects of this deceit were, according to one witness, ‘truly astonishing’:

Three small phials were given to each physician – not enough for the recovery of two patients. It was publicly given out that three or four drops were sufficient to impart a healing virtue to a gallon of liquor. The soldiers flocked about them in crowds, every one soliciting that part might be reserved for his use. Cheerfulness again appeared on every countenance, and a universal faith prevailed in the sovereign virtues of the remedies. The effects of the delusion were really astonishing, for many recovered quickly and perfectly.

Another writer who documented this unusual confidence trick described the scene:

Such as had not moved their limbs for months, were seen walking in the streets, sound, straight and whole. Many who declared they had been rendered worse by all former remedies, recovered in a few days, to their inexpressible joy.

Not exactly a happy ending, however. There are some conditions that the placebo effect simply won’t cure:

The disease was followed by the plague in a short time after, and the besieged were at last obliged to surrender.

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