Barry Marshall won the 2005 Nobel Prize for his discovery that ulcers were caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. In his online autobiography he tells the story of his discovery and the path that led to the Nobel Prize.
One factor favoring his discovery was his general medicine training – he hadn’t been indoctrinated into the gastroenterology specialist dogma (for example that bacteria cannot live in the acidic stomach). Thus he was able to draw logical conclusions from his observations (that H. pylori occurred in all the ulcer patients and in few others). He then went about testing his theory, including infecting himself with the bacteria to see what would happen (he got very sick). By 1984 he was successfully treating ulcer patients with antibiotics and bismuth.
Naturally Marshall was anxious for his discovery to be quickly accepted so that millions of other ulcer patients could also benefit. Instead he became frustrated with the opposition he faced from the medical community. In his words: “I was met with constant criticism that my conclusions were premature and not well supported. When the work was presented, my results were disputed and disbelieved, not on the basis of science but because they simply could not be true.”
Proctor & Gamble, an American pharmaceutical company which made a bismuth drug, came to his rescue and helped Marshall patent and promote his work. Gradually his theory became more accepted and finally in 1994 it became the standard treatment for duodenal and gastric ulcers. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Although those 10 years of opposition must have seemed like a long time to Marshall, he was really very fortunate to have such a revolutionary idea accepted so quickly. I wonder how many other health discoveries are being ignored (or worse) because “they simply could not be true” or because there is too much money being made with the status quo.
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