Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing

Image courtesy of College of Physicians

The Question of Efficacy

As you navigate through Philadelphia’s 18th-century Web of Healing, you may find yourself asking, “Did any of these healing practices actually work?” In thinking about the history of medicine, this question inevitably pops up in everyone’s mind at one time or another.  Yet, while this is an important question to consider, we must remember to look at these healing practices within their own historical context.  Some modern historians and physicians have attempted to evaluate the specific efficacy of some of the remedies we have talked about.  The methodological perspective that this site adopts is that the only people who can truly tell us if these healing practices were effective or not are the ones who used them.  The very fact that people who held these beliefs about healing took them seriously means that we, as historians, have an obligation to take them seriously too. 

The question of efficacy poses a particular challenge to historians of medicine because it requires us to engage with practices that may fall outside of our own belief system, or even directly challenge ideas that we accept as “truths” today.  It is important for us as scholars, however, to recognize that all understandings of illness and disease are products of the social, political, and cultural climate in which they exist.  While it may be uncomfortable to entertain such a perspective, responsible historical scholarship in any subject demands a certain degree of reflexivity.  Rather than focusing on the effectiveness of the practices and ideas discussed on this site, we encourage you to fully appreciate the extent to which their existence fulfilled many of the social, emotional, mental, and physical needs of the people who used them.

To learn more about the past and present Web of Healing, try our Walking Tour of Philadelphia.