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Back in 2005 Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren won the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine ‘for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and it’s role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease’.

 

Marshall_2008

B.J. Marshall

But who really cares?

These days they dish Nobel prizes out to whoever needs them most—even the EU got one in 2012. You just can’t trust committees. Fortunately the Science Satire Serpent is far more discerning in determining the December Hero of Science.

Barry Marshall is a Hero of Science, not because of his discovery that H. pylori causes peptic ulcers, rather, it is because of his old skool south side method …

These days, scientists are typically regurgitants—we stick to the rules, follow the formulas and protocols, fill in the forms, tick the boxes, and definitely never, EVER, drink our reagents. If the modern scientist follows the well-worn groove cut by others before, then there is now a certain expectation that highly ranked publications and tenure will follow. It’s called tenure ‘track’ for a reason.

But not our Barry (we are both Australian so I’m claiming him).

Barry Marshall is as much famous for drinking a funky potion laden with pathogenic H. pylori as he is for all the suffering and misery he prevented through his discoveries.

Hpylori

H. pylori

He is the dinosauric archetypal old-skool crazy scientist. Disappointingly he does not don the Einstein hair-do, although apparently he did conduct Young Einstein-type electrical experiments that once culminated in the literal shocking of his father. Nor does he sprout a bushy Freudian beard with coke bottle glasses loftily perched atop.

And despite his birth place of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, famous only for the odd combination of opals (see correction in the comments), hookers and truckers, Barry Marshall wears a suit … with a tie—no not one of those stupid red bow ties reserved for celebrity scientists and meteorologists, just a plain old half Windsor knot.

However, all of that, and every other achievement in his life is just window dressing and stuffing, for Barry Marshall will always be that man. You know … the one who willingly and sacrificially drank of the putrid waters that gave the gift of vomitous peptic ulceration. Yeah that one. Barry Marshall is one of the most modern of a particularly archaic group of self-harming scholars.

There is a long history of self-experimenting scientists, the most famous being the Curies, who in between warm embraces within the lab also giddily exposed themselves to lethal doses of radiation as course for the day. Pierre was so self-experimental that once he even taped a measure of radium to his arm so that he could burn himself and shock a packed audience of contemporary science men. Ahhh. The good ole days eh? When all it took was a cancerous burn to excite the masses. These days you need actual data and even then the masses nod off at the thought of it. Give us a scab! Give us blood! they chant.

Indeed the list of self harming scientists is long, scabby, and bloody entertaining.

For instance there was Albert Hofman, who despite being a respected scientist for his LSD ‘experiments’ is now the pin-up poster boy for acid-munching hippie junkies the world over.

Albert Hofman - Trippin'

Albert Hofman – the original Hoff

But as you pore over the list of crazy scientists it is apparent that what makes Barry Marshall unique, is that none of his self-harming predecessors had to be concerned by the red tape of modern day ethical approval.

There was certainly no ethics committee wrangling upon the laboratory doors of Galileo as he sat staring blind into the eye of the sun through his magnificent magnificatory lense.

And where were the spot safety inspections by those men in their suits with hard hats, rubber gloves and white coats when Jonas Salk exposed his entire family to an untested polio vaccine?

When Barry Marshall downed his broth of pathogenic H. pylori he had the added stress of doing so in the shadow of the legal periphery. He certainly could not announce ahead of time that he was going to perform such a party trick. There were no tickets sold to a packed out arena of wonder-watchers. In his Nobel biography the laureate states that not only did he have to evade the dreaded ethical fun police committee eye, but worse still, his wife.

Oh to be a fly on the wall that day!

Set scene:

It is dead of night. Wolves howl and bay at a full blood moon. A shadowy figure like a silhouette ninja sneaks into the lab, rolling and bouncing off walls to evade security devices and laser beams. The red light of the vibrating bacterial incubator illuminates the room and the mask of the man perched above it. His feet are splayed one on each wall, hovering above the ground with sweat beads dangling like Damocle’s sword, threatening to activate sensors in the floor below. Half wretching at the prospect, the ninjacidal invader steals a Petri dish from within with a dart of sleight hand. There is silence.

Next morning:

Enter Barry Marshall’s PhD student, right.

Enter Barry Marshall, above.

“Hey boss … have you seen my culture? We’ve been robbed! Woe is me, and this wretched PhD!”

Marshall replies between bouts of vomit and with greening face “Ah no … WRETCH … sorry student … don’t worry about all that H. pylori stuff anyway. I have a nauseous feeling that peptic ulcers are a done topic. How do you feel about pin worms?”

It is of course possible that such events did not in reality occur. One thing is for sure though … that day he did ingest his bacteria. And thanks to the iron gut constitution of the man, the cause of peptic ulcers, stomach inflammation, or gastritis, was subsequently rewritten in the medical books.

Prior to this Hollywood event, and his research, it was widely believed that peptic ulcers were a consequence of ‘stress and lifestyle’.

This brings us to the other reason Barry Marshall is our esteemed Hero of Science.

It seems every other day that you can add yet another morbid state of depression or disease to the list of things that are caused by our seeming addiction to enjoying our lives. Cancer, obesity, atherosclerosis, AIDS – we are drilled that they are the consequences of eating well or generally having a good time. Stop enjoying life, it’s bad for you!

Well I for one am sick of it!

It is bad enough we have to get fat and die without the added stress of knowing about it. Bring back the 20th century—those rosy days when you could live life, be merry, smoke, drink and have unprotected sex with whomever or whatever you chose. All that, without an ounce of guilt or remorse, mostly.

Are we certain that the stress associated with that guilt is not the true cause of morbidity and mortality?

Point is, thanks Barry Marshall, for removing one of those diseases from the list. Peptic ulcers and gastritis are not caused by having a good time. They are not caused by booze, curries, and unprotected oral sex. You could very happily do all three, in that order, and still not get peptic ulcers – in fact half England seems to do this as a regular Saturday event.

Gastric Ulcer - not caused by fun

Ulcer – not caused by fun

Rather, peptic ulcers are caused by the inflammatory response to Helicobacter pylori, the little spiral shaped gastric bacteria that colonises many our guts.

Barry’s epiphany occurred when he and his co-laureate discovered that gastric ulcers patients often had H. pylori in their gut, while healthy volunteers did not. But after repeated rejection and a general lack of belief in his data by peers, he realised that he desperately needed an animal model of the disease.

Unfortunately for Barry it turns out that the usual mice and even pigs were reluctant to play along. It is now understood that the best animal model for peptic ulcer disease is, of course … the Mongolian gerbil …

If only Barry had been trekking through Mongolia that year … hunting gerbils. One cannot help but wonder if he had, would he still have won the Nobel? Perhaps even the Nobel committee might draw the line at gerbils.

In any case, short of a gerbil or two, Barry famously decided to go the human model, although correctly it is no model at all. In effect, he went human.

From all reports his going human was a rather acutely sickening experience. An entire generation of gerbils should not be forgotten, that they were spared this torment by Barry Marshall’s thirst for ulcerative knowledge. Despite vomiting on the fifth day, Barry continued his self experiment for a full two weeks before finally taking antibiotics and ablating his malaise.

Despite his brilliance and apparent dedication to the welfare of gerbils, it should be noted that Barry was almost dead wrong about one thing—he did not expect to become as ill has he did. What?

A man as knowledgeable as Barry, a man who in 1981 had ‘completed the construction of a home computer capable of word processing’, says in his Nobel biography that “I was enthusiastic about the results and severity of my illness”.

Could the man labelled the ‘Guinea pig doctor’ by the venerable newspaper The Star possibly have been so stupidly smart? Imagine in that moment of wracking stomach pain and bloated with gas, the sickly joy of success. I wonder if to this day, each and every time he suffers a bout of belly cramp if Barry Marshall recollects his glory moment like a an athlete recalls victory, or us normals recollect the high score on Minesweeper, or selling the most vacuum cleaners in a month.

Is Barry Marshall’s break a leg mantra thereby the very Australian bust a gut?

Of course Barry has contributed to science beyond his going human. He was instrumental in the design and marketing of the diagnostic urease tests for H. pylori infection. These tests detect the enzyme activity of bacterial urease, which converts urea to ammonia and carbon dioxide, thus allowing rapid diagnosis of H. pylori infection either in mucosal biopsy or breath.

His research has also been vital in generally linking chronic inflammatory conditions, like gastritis, with infection, like H. pylori. Since his pioneering research, there is now a new generation of scientists ready to lay the blame of much of our ill-health on un-diagnosed bacterial infection.

Also, as gastritis is linked to stomach cancer, Barry’s work has vitally re-invigorated efforts into linking microbial infection with cancer. No doubt this potential market contributed to the Nobel prize as much as Barry’s going human did.

But at the end of the day, none of his life’s work will matter. Barry Marshall will always and only be a Hero of Science for imbibing of the poisonous broth of ulcerative bacteria … and being correct.

Mmmh, ulcers.

After all, for every Barry Marshall, there are probably ten blushing morons who harmed themselves for science only to discover they were wrong. Insert Stubbins Ffirth.

The aptly named medical student Stubbins proved that yellow fever is not infectious. He did this by covering himself in the ‘black vomit’ of a sufferer, bathing in the black vomit, inhaling the black vomit, and then drinking the black vomit. In fact he did most things one can do with black vomit, short of injecting black vomit into oneself. Had he done so, he would then have realised that in fact it is infectious, ordinarily via blood and mosquitoes, and not by dripping black vomit into one’s eyes. Of course if Stubbins were so clever then most likely he would be dead, of his own black vomit gushing from within. But fortunately for Stubbins he was no Hero of Science. And fortunately for Barry Marshall, our true Hero of Science did not work with black vomit, only those mildly less repulsive ulcerative bacteria, the H. pylori.

But if Barry Marshall is a Hero of Science and Stubbins Ffirth is an Idiot of Science, then what does that make Eduard Jenner?

Eduard_Jenner

Eduard Jenner by Vigneron Pierre Roch (1789-1872)

Jenner inoculated his gardener’s 8 year old son with cow pox. No doubt he explained the intricacies of immunology and vaccination to the boy prior to consent, but still I’m sure the kid would have preferred to be sculpting his hedgerows than being inoculated with milkmaid pus contracted from a cow named Blossom.

They say that fortune smiles on the brave.

Fortune was clearly laughing at poor old Stubbins.

And perhaps Fortune once pondered how it might punish Jenner, that dog.

But Barry Marshall?

Well that smile of Fortune’s, that was a smile that bore a wink of fancy.

Barry Marshall is not just a Hero to Fortune, he is to us all.

Thus he is the December Hero of Science.

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8 thoughts on “Heroes of Science – Barry J. Marshall

  1. Hi Science Satire Serpent, another great article, this was always one of my favourite stories of science when I was at school, loved the idea of someone being so passionate about what they do as to test out their hypothesis on themselves. I think I’d be more with Jenner on the ‘test it on a neighbour’ method!

    Last time you invited us to make suggestions for other ‘Heroes of Science’. I’d love to read your take on Rita Levi-Montalcini. Ashamed to admit the first I knew about her was with the publicity around her recent death, she sounds like an extraordinary woman.

    The Guardian’s take on it, if it’s of any interest, is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/30/rita-levi-montalcini-biologist-dies

    Happy New Year!
    Sam

    • Hi Sam,

      thanks for your comment. That’s a good idea on Rita LM. You are the second person to suggest her to me so I guess I have no choice now. It seems good timing given her recent sad passing. I’ll definitely look into it and give it a go. As for you not knowing about her until recently … I think most of us are guilty … and really that is the exact purpose of me writing these little articles. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Serpent

    I really enjoy your articles, but I am sure that even with earmuffs clamped and toque pulled tight, you can hear the Antipodean howls of protest from 3 others who consider that they have at least a relative claim to be considered famous progeny of Kalgoorlie.

    Okay, after reading your article, they concede that BJM deservedly holds the apex of Kalgoorlie’s fame pyramid, maybe going toe to toe with Herbert Hoover, whose formative days were spent in the bowels of the golden mile. And hookers and truckers may also be hard to dislodge from the second tier (the abolition of Kalgoorlie’s infamous containment policy has meant truckers can now also be hookers, possibly forming a subclass on tier 3). But Opals!! Surely not.

    In the immortal words of Kenny Banya…. “That’s gold, Nicholas! Gold! “

    • Hi rb. Thanks for your corrections.

      oops … I might have been thinking of Coober Pedy re opals. For us big city folk though, they’re pretty much the same aren’t they? They both have double oo in the name, and sure they both have truckers and hookers (which also has oo). Granted gold is preferable to opals.

      Hookers get trucks now? I wonder what other benefits they get … health plans, dental, mobile phone, life insurance – all very important in that line of work.

  3. Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. Id prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you dont mind. Natually Ill give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

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