Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Barry Marshall
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.
Eventually, the scientific and medical establishments came around to seeing things his way. In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize in physiology, and today, he is something of a legend in the microbiology community.
It is worth pointing out that H. pylori is a great example of the complicated relationship our bodies have with microbial flora. About half the planet is infected with H. pylori, yet most infections are asymptomatic, meaning that a person can carry the bacterium and never get an ulcer. (Also, H. pylori is genetically diverse, meaning one person's bacteria could be very different from another.) Further complicating the picture is the fact that not all ulcers are caused by H. pylori; indeed, some might be due to stress, and a substantial proportion are caused by overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
Marshall's self-experimentation certainly might classify as "mad," but it's positively sane compared to the behavior of Edward Jenner. Jenner, the "father of immunology," tested his new idea of vaccination on his gardener's son, an 8-year-old child, after which he purposefully exposed him to smallpox virus. Lucky for him, Jenner was right.
Thank goodness for modern-day institutional review boards.
(Image: Helicobacter pylori by Yutaka Tsutsumi via Wikimedia Commons)