Silver Bullet In Medicine


In her testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said that "there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks."

The term "silver bullet" has been around for a long time and has been much used in medicine but did not originate in medicine.

In 1809 Washington Irving wrote in his "History of New York" that "There was even a story told with great mystery, and under the rose" of Peter Stuyvesant's "having shot the devil with a silver bullet one dark stormy night, as he was sailing in a canoe through Hell-gate."

And in 1816 Sir Walter Scott wrote in his "Old Mortality" that "Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power."

A silver (or magic) bullet is a perfect drug to cure a disease with no danger of side effects. The term magic bullet was first used in this sense by the German physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908.

Initially, Ehrlich invoked the notion of a magic bullet in characterizing antibodies. He then reused the concept of a magic bullet to apply to a chemical that binds to and specifically kills microbes or tumor cells.

Ehrlich's best known magic bullet was arsphenamine (Salvarsan, or compound 606), the first effective treatment for syphilis. At a meeting in 1910, Ehrlich and his colleagues announced the remarkable effects of their treatment of syphilis with this magic bullet.

In general, a silver bullet is a magical solution to any vexing problem. For example, researchers have long sought a silver bullet against cancer.

And in werewolf lore, a silver bullet is the only means to kill a werewolf (wolfman).

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Authors and Editors,

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Reference Date: April 9, 2004

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