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JAMA 100 Years Ago
October 4, 2006


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2006;296(13):1668. doi:10.1001/jama.296.13.1668-b

In the last number of the American Magazine is an article on popular medical fallacies by Dr. L. K. Hirshberg which, while rather nihilistic in tone, is, on the whole, commendable. A number of popularly accepted propositions with regard to medical matters are directly contradicted. Virchow used to say that all of the medical fallacies accepted generally by the people have been at one time doctrines recognized by physicians. Undoubtedly many of the present-day popular medical fallacies even yet are accepted by certain physicians, and it is this that helps to keep them alive. For instance, there are still physicians who say that boils are always a manifestation of a blood disease. While it is true that a rundown condition will predispose to the appearance of boils, these are practically always due to infection from without. It is suggested that men suffer more from boils on the neck than do women, because the former wear starched collars that are likely to produce lesions through which infective agents find their way beneath the skin. The possibility of taking cold in a boil or in a cut or wound, which is believed in by most people, is thrown out as one of the old-fashioned notions that we are through with. Certain popular remedies, such as sage and other old-time teas, are discussed, and whatever efficacy they have is attributed to the true cause—the hot water employed in making them. Of course, the mental suggestion that something has been done which is likely to be beneficial removes the despondency that comes with illness of any kind and helps to restore the patient to normal conditions. In the same way the vaunted efficiency of many liniments is attributed rather to the rubbing associated with their application than to any remedial virtue that there may be in the drugs of which the liniments are composed. The popular impression that there is a specific remedy for each disease and that nothing but this specific will cure it is at the bottom of many of these fallacies. This was an old-time medical notion that has not as yet gone out entirely, but whose disappearance will do much to make popular medical ideas more sane and sensible.