“To think you know something is the most dangerous thing in the world.” Lao Tzu
This is one of my favorite stories about assumption. . .
Waaaaaaaaay back in 1981, two doctors, Dr. Barry Marshall (internist) and Dr. Robin Warren (pathologist) from Australia said they had found the cause of stomach ulcers in people. But it wasn’t even close to the prevailing belief among doctors or the public as to what causes ulcers, which was “stress” of course. Seems our Australian doctors had the whacky idea that ulcers are caused by a bacteria (h. pylori). I remember when this first made the news – I also remember how they were ridiculed and called crazy, especially by other doctors. . . “Why, everyone knows high stress and poor diet causes ulcers. . .” Yes, everyone, including doctors, who are supposed to be scientists, at least in part, with open minds who evaluate physical evidence and facts in the interest of giving their patients better, healthier lives and preventing needless deaths. What’s more, Dr. Marshall and Dr. Warren also found this bacteria causes stomach cancer. Now keep in mind, even if there is no cancer, stomach and duodenal ulcers cause much pain and suffering, can result in having to remove a large portion of the stomach, and can be fatal. So this was not something to be taken lightly, even as many doctors kept saying that ulcers were really in people’s heads and if they would just relax more and eat better they would be just fine.
Happily, Dr. Marshall did not give up. He couldn’t use mice to experiment in the lab, because h. pylori only affects primates. Regulations prohibited him from experimenting on people. So, a real hero, Dr. Marshall borrowed a cup of h. pylori from one of his patients and drank it, infecting himself. He followed the course of his own disease and biopsied his own stomach, proving conclusively that h. pylori causes stomach ulcers in people. (This, by the way, is the difference between thinking you know and actually knowing.) As a result of these doctors’ work, ulcers and stomach cancer claim far fewer lives in the industrialized world.
In 2005 (way too late, in my not-so-humble-opinion) Drs. Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for their discovery.
But, one of the most amazing things about all this, to me, is how many people STILL believe stomach ulcers are caused by “stress”.
See here for a recent interview with Dr. Marshall.