Cullen W (1772)

Clinical lectures. Edinburgh, Feb-April, 218-219.
In manuscript notes of his clinical lectures, the Scottish physician William Cullen describes how he used ‘a pure placebo’ in an attempt to comfort a dying patient.

Key passage(s)


“I gave him a medicine that has been supposed to be of that kind viz the mustard the stimulant power of that you are well acquainted with and the singular circumstances of its being taken in entire and un -bruised is supposed to give it its virtues as its action is not over in the stomach but proves purgative, diaphoretic and in short proves a stimulant that is alleged to be useful in paralytic affections. I own that I did not trust much to it but I gave it because it is necessary to give a medicine and as what I call a placebo. If I had thought of any internal medicine it would have been a dose of the Dover’s powders…”

Cullen Clinical Lectures 1772-3 RCPE Manuscript Cullen 4/2 299-300


“Mr Gilchrist will bear me testimony at 1st view I considered him as absolutely incurable as hastening very fast to his fate I took him in hope of making some observations upon his case & even of learning something by his death, I prescribed therefore in pure placebo, but I make it a rule even in employing placebos to give what would have a tendency to be of use to the patient.”

Cullen Clinical Lectures  1772 Feb/Apr RCPE Manuscript Cullen 4/4 218-9


William Cullen (1710-1790)



The editors are grateful to:

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh for making available the portrait of William Cullen (1710-1790).