Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Henry K Beecher: pain, belief and truth at the bedside. The powerful placebo, ethical research and anaesthesia safety
  1. Mark Best1,
  2. Duncan Neuhauser2
  1. 1Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Bradenton, Florida, USA
  2. 2Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH USA
  1. Correspondence to Professor Mark Best, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, 5000 Lakewood Ranch Blvd, Bradenton, Bradenton, FL 34211, USA; markbest20{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Henry Knowles Beecher (1904–1976)

Do good without fear and tell the truth. For Henry Beecher, this was both wisdom and paradox. Reality and perception are not always the same.

Beecher was born in Peck, Kansas in 1904 with the birth name of Harry Unangst. His father's German surname means ‘without fear.’ He was a carpenter and night watchman. Father and son did not get along together. The son changed his name while in his 20s, after the then-famous 19th-century American clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher. This respected preacher was later in life scandalously exposed as an adulterer. Perception and reality were not the same.

Young Beecher focused on chemistry while attending the University of Kansas, receiving a BA in 1926 and an MA in 1927.1 2 In 1928, he entered Harvard Medical School after changing his mind about pursuing a PhD in chemistry. While in medical school, he received research fellowships in 1929, 1930 and 1931. He obtained 2 years' postgraduate training under Edward Churchill, MD, a renowned and highly respected Professor of Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and Dr Churchill became Dr Beecher's mentor for many years. In 1935, Beecher went to Denmark to work in the Nobel Laureate August Krogh's physiology research laboratory. Upon returning to the USA in 1936, Beecher became Anaesthetist-in-Chief at MGH and Instructor in Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School. In 1941 he was appointed to the first endowed chair in anaesthesiology in America, the Henry Isaiah Dorr Professor of Anaesthesia Research.

Wounds without pain 1946

Beecher served as a military doctor during World War II in North Africa, Italy and France. He observed and reported on 225 soldiers with severe wounds.3 Three-quarters of these soldiers had so little pain that they did not ask for pain relief. The reality of the wound was not the same as the perception of pain. …

View Full Text


  • A collection of Beecher's papers are in the Francis A Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.