Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world?
Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers
and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their
This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and
surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, we conclude our series with "Barry Marshall: Guinea Pig for Microbiology."
Peptic ulcers are painful sores which develop in the stomach (gastric ulcers) or upper small intestine (duodenal ulcer). As the mucosal layer which lines the digestive tract erodes away, the underlying tissue is left exposed to stomach acids. This causes extreme pain, and if left untreated, can cause bleeding, other health complications, and possibly death.
For decades, the medical community believed ulcers were caused by stress, too much stomach acid and poor lifestyle choices (diet, smoking, etc). But then along came an Australian medical doctor, Barry Marshall, who had a radical new idea: Ulcers are caused by an infectious microorganism.
In an interview with Discover Magazine, Marshall explained his incredibly difficult uphill battle. Not only was there no incentive to find a cure for ulcers (because antacids produced by pharmaceutical companies were very profitable, and since they didn't cure ulcers, the patients taking them remained dutiful customers for life), but the medical community was skeptical, as well. He also didn't have any good animal models to work with.
So, he did what any good "mad" scientist would do: He experimented on himself.
How did he do this? In the words of Dr. Marshall (from the Discover interview):
I had a patient with gastritis [stomach inflammation and the precursor to an ulcer]. I got the bacteria and cultured them,Marshall became ill and vomited, and after several days, just like his patient, he developed gastritis. When his stomach was examined, the guilty bacterium, called Helicobacter pylori, was present. Essentially, he fulfilled Koch's postulates (which is a microbiological process for determining infectious disease etiology) for gastritis, using himself as a guinea pig.
then worked out which antibiotics could kill his infection in the lab--in
this case, bismuth plus metronidazole. I treated the patient and did an
endoscopy to make sure his infection was gone. After that I swizzled
the organisms around in a cloudy broth and drank it the next morning.