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October 3, 2005
The Medicine/Physiology Nobel for Barry Marshall and Robin Warren is a fine thing. It's important to realize just how odd it seemed that ulcers could be caused by bacterial infection, when Everyone Knew that they were due to excess stomach acid, no doubt caused by stress and such things. (Check out the retrospectively insane passage from 1967 cited here in an excellent review of the H. pylori discovery. It's a respectable review article with authoritative research showing that over-dominant mothers were responsible for most ulcers. Sigmund Freud has a hell of a lot to answer for.)
H. pylori is the source of almost all ulcers, and is involved in many stomach cancers as well. Infectious agents are now suspected to play a role in many other chronic conditions. The germ theory of disease has become more important than ever in the last twenty years, and these are two of the scientists most responsible.
Marshall and Warren pursued their line of research despite raised eyebrows and dismissive head-shaking, even to the point of ingesting a culture of bacteria to show that it could infect the stomach lining. And they were absolutely correct, as the scientific world came to realize. An important (and encouraging) part of the story is how they were able to prove their case and completely change medical opinion within just a few years. It's good to think about that when people start going on about Dogmatic Intolerant Scientists and Science As A New Religion and so on.
Crazy ideas won't necessarily get you tossed out of the club. Crazy ideas with nothing to back them up will. But just come back with the evidence, and they won't be crazy any more. Show me the religion that takes its heretics and makes them bishops, won't you?
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