I’m sure many of us at some point have tried to convince someone about a fact they simply didn’t believe. I can strongly recognise the feeling of desperately wanting to prove something to someone and to be willing to do whatever it takes to convince them, just to proudly say “I told you so”. Sometimes though, this eagerness can end up giving you scars for life! At least it did for me; when I was a kid I burned myself with a car cigarette lighter trying to convince my brother that a car cigarette lighter does indeed burn.
However, being desperate enough to do experiments with your own body might end up giving you the Nobel Prize.
Gastric ulcers and the stress hypothesis
Back in the 1980’s Australian physician Dr. Marshall had for years with horror observed patients suffering from gastric ulcer, some cases so severe the patients would bleed to death. Back then, the prevailing theory was that gastric ulcers were caused by stress. Accordingly, gastric ulcers were treated with psychotherapy or antidepressants. But Marshall developed an alternative theory, when he began to work with Dr. Warren, a pathologist that had discovered that the gut could be invaded by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. He was convinced that this spiral-shaped bacterium was the underlying cause of ulcers.
Image owned by the author. Adapted from Dave Hazzel’s blog
A medical breakthrough
Culturing the organisms from ulcers biopsies from his patients, Marshall linked this bacterium with ulcers. He realised that the cure for H. Pylori infection was readily available: antibiotics. However, this breakthrough was not acknowledged by other scientists and Marshall and Waren had a hard time convincing others that a bacterium, not stress, caused stomach ulcers.
The doctor who tested a hypothesis by being his own guinea pig
Convinced that he had solved a medical mystery, but unsuccessful to infect an animal model
and unable to use human test persons, he grew desperate and realised that the only person he could recruit for an experiment was himself. Using the don’t ask, don’t tell strategy, Marshall and Waren conducted an experiment in the summer of 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a soup of cultured H. Pylori. Their experiment succeeded: a few days later Marhshall developed classical symptoms of acute gastritis, the precursor of ulcer. He started vomiting, had a stinking breath and had abdominal pain. Before beginning the antibiotic cure, a biopsy from his gut was taken and cultured. Finally, Marshall and Waren had proved their theory; that H. Pylori unequivocally causes gastritis which in turn can lead to the development of ulcers. This medical breakthrough, not only solved a medical mystery, but also meant that patients now could effectively get treatment for gastric ulcers.
The 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine
Although colleagues thought Marshall was completely insane to take this risk, his persistence paid off. In 2005, Marshall and Waren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery.
photos sourced from Flickr
So after all, listening to your gut instinct and even take a risk to prove your point might not be such a bad idea, you might ending up saving lives and get the Nobel Prize!