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A panacea is a substance which is capable of curing all disease. As you might imagine from the well-stocked shelves at your local drugstore, no one has been able to find a panacea, although people have certainly tried. The myth of a panacea endures to this day in some corners of the alternative medical field, and a variety of products have been sold to the unwitting public as “panaceas.” As a general rule, if a medicine is labeled as universal, there is a strong probability it won't work for anything, not to mention everything.
In addition to being used to refer to a cureall medicine, people can also describe the cure to social, environmental, or political problems as a “panacea.” In this sense, many people use the term pejoratively, with the goal of undercutting people who believe that there is a simple and quick fix to a problem. When people talk about a panacea for a social problem, they suggest that someone's wishful thinking is clouding their judgment.
Although most people today accept that fact that a panacea will probably never be discovered, historically, people believed that such a substance could be found, with application and hard work. Alchemists in the Middle Ages struggled to discover a panacea, believing that in addition to curing disease, the substance would also be able to transform base metals into gold. In the 1800s, charlatans sold panaceas to the general public, claiming that their patent medicines could cure all ills and fortify the body. Far from curing disease, many of these spurious products were actually dangerous.
The panacea is named for Panacea, the Greek goddess of health. The granddaughter of Apollo and the daughter of Asclepius, the father of medicine, Panacea had an assortment of brothers and sisters, including Hygieia, the goddess of cleanliness. According to legend, Panacea carried some sort of elixir or herbal blend which she used to heal the sick. Being a goddess, of course, she was capable of formulating a medicine which apparently worked for everything.
In a biochemical sense, a panacea is next to impossible, if not entirely so. Numerous agents cause disease, including viruses, fungi, bacteria, and prions, among others, and it would be very challenging to devise a medication which could target all potential ages of disease. Developing a panacea which would also address inflammation, physical damage, and other disease complications would be quite a feat indeed.
I actually think there is something that could conceivably be called a panacea and be developed in the next few decades. Nanotechnology is starting to head that way. If they could invent microscopic robots that could roam about your system, performing various tasks, manipulating your DNA and cell structures, creating and releasing hormones and vitamins, and removing or killing threats to your body, you could define that a panacea.
I have read stories where the little nano-bots in people's blood were fast enough to repair a cut throat, and could also manipulate the failing sequences of DNA to stave off old age indefinitely.
We are no where near that now, but it is certainly possible that it could happen one day.
Hopefully, if it ever does, we will also limit reproduction, or the earth would be swarmed with humans in no time!
I have seen a panacea used in fiction quite a few times, but it is often a bad move to introduce an item like this.
The rough definition of a panacea is an object that can solve all your problems.
So if you introduce it into a fictional world, you'd better have a good reason for the characters to not use it the next time they come across the same problem.
In the TV Tropes website they call it phlebotinum, an all powerful object. It can cure all (or, more often, destroy all).
So you either have to use it right at the end, or make up some reason why it can only be used once. Otherwise your fictional world
will make no sense.
One example that people use is the time turners in Harry Potter. Why not just go back and stop Voldemort from becoming a wizard in the first place?
So, if you want to write something with a panacea, you have to be prepared for everyone in that world to be cured of all diseases, forever, or have a good reason why not.
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