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Anonymous Scientist, on Barry Marshall's presentation of one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th Century. [He] simply didn’t have the demeanor of a scientist.

Anonymous Scientist, on Barry Marshall's presentation of one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th Century.
Source: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath, Random House, 2007
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From the book with AM commentary: “In the early 1980s two medical researchers from Perth Australia made an astonishing discovery: ulcers are caused by bacteria. The researchers, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, identified a tiny spiral shaped type of bacteria as the culprit. It had been thought up to then that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid in the stomach. As it turns out, that was just completely wrong.

 

The significance of this story was enormous: If ulcers were caused by bacteria they could be cured. In fact, they could be cured within a matter of days by a simple treatment with antibiotics. The medical world, however, did not rejoice. There were no celebrations for Marshall and Warren, who had almost singlehandedly improved the health prospects of several hundred million human beings. (About one person in ten will develop an ulcer sometime during their life, and they tend to be very painful.)

 

The reason for the lack of acclaim was simple: no one believed them.” One problem was the source: “At the time of the discovery, Robin Warren was a staff pathologist at a hospital in Perth; Barry Marshall was a 30 year old internist in training, not even a doctor yet. The medical community expects important discoveries to come from P.h.D’s at research universities or professors at large, world class medical centers. Internists do not cure diseases that effect 10% of the world’s population.” Another problem was the location. “A medical researcher from Perth is alike a physicist from Mississippi. Science is science, but, thanks to basic human snobbery, we tend to think it will emerge from some places and not others.”

 

The other problem is that the findings were simply counter-initiative; the stomach is filled with strong acids to aid in digestion; strong enough to dissolve all that stuff you put in your stomach; most people did not think that bacteria could survive in such a environment. They could not even get their research paper accepted by a medical journal. “When Marshall presented their findings at professional conference, the scientists snickered. One of the researchers who heard his presentation said “he simply didn’t have the demeanor of a scientist.” Failing to get the scientific community to take their ideas seriously, Marshall took a drastic step: In front of other scientists, he swallowed a glass full of bacteria; within a few days, he had developed all the normal symptoms of an ulcer. He then cured himself with a course of antibiotics.

 

This was enough to encourage more research, but it took 10 years, until 1994, when the National Institutes for Health endorsed the idea that antibiotics should be used to cure ulcers. Not only did they find a cure for the common ulcer, but the two made a major contribution towards other cures, by encouraging scientists to think that bacteria caused other medical problems, such as certain types of cancer and heart disease. In the fall of 2005, they were awarded the Nobel Prize.

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