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.