Prescribing Hope: How Willpower Became a Cure

By Anne Harrington
W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $25.95

In the late 1980’s, two oncologists tested a chemotherapy drug called EPHO. One doctor’s patients did surprisingly well; three-quarters of them responded to treatment. But only one-quarter of the other doctor’s patients showed improvement. Why the disparity? The first doctor explained that he had rearranged the acronym EPHO to spell HOPE. Optimism, it would seem, is a potent drug.

The story of the two oncologists is not true; it’s a prevalent self-help myth. But if you fell for it, you’re not alone. When Anne Harrington, chair of history of science at Harvard, related this yarn to a large class of undergraduates, almost all her students accepted the idea that hope itself can heal. Ms. Harrington’s admirable new book, The Cure Within, digs up the roots of her students’ credulity. She gives us, as her subtitle promises, a history of mind-body medicine.

Without resorting to academic jargon, Ms. Harrington documents how religious doctrines have been “imperfectly secularized.” The early Christian belief that exorcism cures demonic possession gave way to mesmerism, which purports that specially trained physicians can harness magnetic fields to cleanse the body. In the late 19th century, psychoanalysis tried to elucidate puzzling diseases like hysteria and took Svengalis out of the equation. Metaphorical demons such as traumatic memories, Freud argued, manifest themselves physically. To achieve relief, patients must “speak aloud previously resisted or denied truths.”

In recent memory, Norman Vincent Peale’s midcentury best seller The Power of Positive Thinking drew upon the patient-empowerment idea advanced by psychoanalysis—illness originates from within and can be cured from within, too. Practices such as yoga and meditation, ever-present in crunchy communities from Park Slope to Portland, add an exotic Eastern inflection to the mind-over-body dogma.

Ms. Harrington’s historical overview is highly original, but her account of why the willpower approach to healing has such traction is rather less so. Lab-coat doctors, she maintains, don’t present a satisfying story: Bacteria cause infection, and antibiotics help the immune system defend itself; our enemies are malign but motiveless, and the sick are simply unlucky. Holistic medicine, on the other hand, offers a more tangible explanation: Stress leads to illness, and qigong paves the road to recovery. This is the stuff of Psych 101.

Facile psychology aside, The Cure Within is a bit too leveling for my taste. In Ms. Harrington’s account, neuropsychology and the fight-or-flight thesis carry the same weight as the so-called laughter cure or Christian Science or acupuncture. A well-documented study about the benefits of affection in foster care gets the same treatment as the dubious notion that Type-A behavior causes heart attacks.

In her conclusion, Ms. Harrington chides the Harvard students who wonder if “stories that flourish on the kooky alternative margins of society” should “be treated with the same respect as … impeccable laboratory research.” Presumably, her protégés grit their teeth and settle for detached historical inquiry. Readers, however, may feel irked that the million-dollar question—“does it work?”—is, for Anne Harrington, of secondary importance.


Juliet Lapidos is an editorial assistant at Slate. She can be reached at

Prescribing Hope: How Willpower Became a Cure