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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« A Piece of the Action | Main | Where Do the Good Ones Go? »

October 3, 2005

Well Deserved

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Posted by Derek

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?

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Infectious Diseases


1. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on October 3, 2005 2:44 PM writes...

The book Plague Time has a very enlightening look into the history of the infection-ulcer issue, whch shows pretty convincingly that the relationship was strongly suspected long before the discovery of H. Pylori. What the discovery provided was the mechanism, but the association between antibiotics was already there, it's just that the observation was more likely to be made by nurses than doctors, who all too often denigrate anything not said by other doctors.

Just goes to show that "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (sp?) may be a lousy conclusion but it may make a terrific hypothesis.

Also, don't dis Freud for the truisms of overzealous followers that held sway at a time so much of the complexity and originality of his thinking was thrown away when it got inconvenient unless you're willing to do the same to all scientists who go so far afield of conventional wisdom.

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2. Utenzi on October 3, 2005 2:48 PM writes...

It's good to know that they've gotten the international recognition that they deserve--and you draw a good moral out of the story, Derek. The ID folk are very tiresome with their stories of how the science community doesn't welcome new theories.

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3. Mark Wilson on October 3, 2005 3:14 PM writes...

I'm not an ID person, but to me the story does more to show how resistant the scientific community can be to new ideas than not. The guy had to drink bacteria to give himself an ulcer and then treat it with antibiotics before he could turn the tide of opinion against him. And his is not the only story of major scientific advances that were met with scorn for years or decades. New ideas, backed with evidence, are often discouraged, if they contradict an established view. However, I don't mean to encourage those who come forward with no evidence and/or no sound theoretical basis.

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4. Riskssr on October 3, 2005 3:44 PM writes...

As a side note, I wonder how the Nobel Prize would be publicized in the mainstream US media if Alfred Nobel had a typical Swedish last name, such as Johansson. The Johansson awards would probably be buried somewhere in the N.Y. Times and a few other top newspapers, and not covered at all by the boob tube.

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5. Utenzi on October 3, 2005 5:13 PM writes...

I don't mean to be crass here but regardless of the name, when you give million dollar awards to the top people in a range of disciplines--you're going to get a lot of attention.

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6. daen on October 3, 2005 5:21 PM writes...

to me the story does more to show how resistant the scientific community can be to new ideas than not

Sorry Mark, I agree with Derek : moving from outright rejection by the incumbent experts to the ultimate accolade of a Nobel prize in 23 years definitely counts as a rapid about-turn in medicine.

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7. Mike on October 4, 2005 9:32 AM writes...

Mark, here is an article that argues quite effectively that the scientific and medical community did in fact rapidly accept this discovery.

The idea that this discovery was initially met only with scorn is a myth.

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8. surly on October 4, 2005 7:00 PM writes...

Why should Freud have to answer for a point of view he never argued for?

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9. Jagan Mohan R on October 5, 2005 12:27 AM writes...

But how about Stress Ulcers during/post surgery or Trauma? [distinguished from 'emotional' stress which stands discredited as a contributor to pep.ulcer] ||~||

I take your bait; In Hinduism, once Heretics like Sankara (monist), Ramanuja (qualified monist) and Madhava (dualist) etc, who in their times challenged established doctrines and offered unique and totally opposing intrepretations of the Universe/God are now considered as 'Acharyas', founders of respective Schools of thought. There are simply no 'heretics' in Hinduism, since there are no 'established' and 'final word' dogmas - . Ah.. just a point.

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10. Mark Wilson on October 6, 2005 12:51 PM writes...

Mike, the article you linked was good, but I do think it downplays the resistance to the idea. However, I am most struck, in reading the article, by how a wrong idea (that "stress" causes ulcers), with nothing but anecdotal evidence to back it up, was accepted for so long and considered presumptively true. One of my favorite wrong ideas in science, however, comes from physics -- the idea that the sun (and other stars) were composed of higher elements rather than primarily hydrogen and helium. More details here:

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11. mandelic acid serum on May 30, 2013 4:48 PM writes...

Thanks for finally talking about >Well Deserved.
In the Pipeline:

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Well Deserved:

But I thought biologists were too “close-minded?” Australians Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for showing that bacterial infection, not stress, was to blame for painful ulcers in the stomach a... [Read More]

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