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And for my next trick

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 10 November 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2492
  1. Wendy Moore, journalist, London
  1. wendymoore{at}

    In the laudable history of clinical trials, little has given doctors more pleasure than the demonstration of the placebo effect, particularly when it is used to undermine unorthodox treatments.

    John Hunter, the tireless 18th century experimenter, could scarcely conceal his delight when conducting a trial on the popular folklore remedy of spider’s web. After secretly dosing a patient who had the “ague” with the treatment, he found that it had “not the slightest effect”; yet once his patient had been informed of the intervention, “the effect was produced,” he gloated.

    As a maverick who regarded conventional and alternative treatments with almost equal disdain, Hunter was one of the few—and possibly the first—to test a standard medicine against a placebo. Convinced that mercury, the stock treatment for gonorrhoea, was …

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