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Depiction of Walter Raleigh examining a panacea prior to application
Against allopathy
Alternative medicine
Clinically unproven
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This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.
—Sir Walter Raleigh upon viewing the axe that was to behead him[1]

A panacea is a treatment or practice claimed to be capable of curing many or all diseases. The longer the list of diseases claimed to be treatable, the higher the chance that the "cure" is woo.

Woo convention[edit]

Supporters of panaceas often (though not always) claim that there is One True Cause of All Disease that the medical establishment doesn't want you to know about (or, at least, that it is too closed-minded to acknowledge), and that can be treated with their preferred therapy. So, for instance, some homeopaths will claim that this cause is miasms, which can be cured with homeopathic remedies; some will claim that it is humoral imbalance treatable with bloodletting and purging, among other things; some others will claim that dehydration is the true cause of all disease, and all illnesses can be cured simply by consuming large amounts of water; some claim that hyperventilation is the cause, which can be cured with breathing exercises; others claim that the real cause is really pH imbalance; and still others will claim that "toxins" are the cause, and can be removed with pills or chelation therapy. The mere existence of so many contradictory theories (and contradictory treatments to go along with them, as shown in the list below) is in itself enough to cast doubt on their veracity. After all, they can't all be right.

Persistence of the myth[edit]

Panaceas are so widespread in anecdote-based medicine mainly because of three factors: 1) the placebo effect, which occurs regardless of the specific treatment or disease, 2) the fact that many illnesses usually resolve without treatment, and that even diseases that rarely clear up on their own can, sometimes very suddenly, undergo spontaneous improvement, and 3) misdiagnosis, which may lead to a person treating a disease they don't have. These are some of the reasons why, as Steven Novella notes, "If you are basing your claims on anecdotal experience, then any treatment will seem to work for anything and everything."[2] This is also why so much alternative health advice is contradictory; in the area of diets, for instance, what foods you should and shouldn't eat vary wildly depending on who you ask: fruitarians claim only fruits are healthy; many vegans and vegetarians say meat will kill you, while others say you should eat lots of it; and some say agave is a healthy alternative to mainstream refined sugar, while others say it's full of fructose and unhealthy, among many other examples.

Historical examples[edit]

Some of the oldest known panaceas include bloodletting and trepanation, which were used, at first, to expel evil spirits from the body, and later to balance the humors.[3] Tobacco was thought to be a cure for over 65 diseases, including cancer.[4]

Social panaceas[edit]

The word "panacea" also occurs in general contexts to refer to non-medical courses of action or ideologies that can fix everything that's wrong with a given situation.

Social panaceas can fix any issues in society, as any old wives' tale will anecdotally attest. Such panaceas sometimes fall in and out of fashion, only to show up again later. You can often spot them coming when you hear the phrase "it's all about ... [insert favored social panacea here]." Or: "what young people all need today is a good dose of ..."

Examples which many people may recognize include:

  • discipline[5] — popular in Victorian days; holding firm in the institution called "families"; making a come-back among traditionalists
  • assimilation[6] — once a cure-all for racial issues, until superseded by cultural identity[7]
  • identity — along with consciousness-raising,[8] helps all self-perceived underdogs and minorities
  • education — a perennial favorite since the Industrial Revolution. (But who will educate the educators, Senor de Loyola?)[9]
    • right-thinking — the proper product of a proper education
  • faith — as measured in intensity and unshakability units. An all-time crutch — even though religiously homogenous societies have had their moments.
  • prayer — like faith (above) and communication (below)
  • critical thinking — a secular form of faith. Useful so long as one reaches the right conclusions.
  • wrap-around services[10] — a fad amongst interventionist politicians and for diligent bureaucrats
  • management - widely advocated by managers and by the managerial class[11]
  • professionalism (code-word for elitism)
  • leadership[12] — popular with politicians
    • strong leadership[13] — for people who like to think of followers as weak
  • communication[14] — the panacea of the New Age of Aquarius
  • self-esteem[15] — too vague to be doubted. Will rehabilitate any criminal (identity optional).
  • love (All you need is love…[16])
  • money — the ultimate symbol. (Money makes the world go around…)
  • dialectical materialism (and variants) — when money is not enough
  • creativity[17] — essential for Creationists; also useful for non-billionaires

While some of the above things may generally be good or even necessary for fixing societal issues, they by themselves will likely not fix everything. Societal issues are complex, and thus solutions to these issues must address that complexity.

List of medical panaceas[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Sir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan (2003). Henry Holt & Co. (2002). ISBN 978-0-7139-9326-4. p. 552.
  2. The CAM Worldview, Science-Based Medicine, October 23, 2013.
  3. Bloodletting Over the Centuries, Gilbert R. Seigworth, M.D.
  4. A history of the medicinal use of tobacco 1492-1860, Grace G. Stewart, Med. Hist. 1967 July; 11(3): 228–268. PMCID: PMC1033728.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Spare the rod and spoil the child.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on cultural assimilation.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on cultural identity.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Consciousness raising.
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Society of Jesus.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on wraparound.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Managerial Class.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on leadership.
  13. See the Wikipedia article on strong leader.
  14. See the Wikipedia article on communication.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on self esteem.
  16. See the Wikipedia article on All You Need Is Love.
  17. See the Wikipedia article on creativity.