The Doctor Who Tested Infectious Bacteria On Himself, And Won A Nobel

In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine for their study of the Helicobacter pylori bacteria's role in causing stomach ulcers. But Marshall's experience with the bacteria began much earlier, when he dosed himself with it to test out its effects.


In response to a Kinja-discussion on the scientific discoveries that had rather strange paths to making themselves known, commenter neisseria suggested Marshall's story, noting "The scientist who linked H. Pylori to ulcers drank a vial of the stuff when no one believed him. At least he got a Nobel out of it :P" Here's Marshall's own account that he delivered to the Nobel committee of the test, how it came about, and just how sick it all made him:

I was successfully experimentally treating patients who had suffered with life threatening ulcer disease for years. Some of my patients had postponed surgery which became unnecessary after a simple 2 week course of antibiotics and bismuth. I had developed my hypothesis that these bacteria were the cause of peptic ulcers and a significant risk for stomach cancer. If I was right, then treatment for ulcer disease would be revolutionized. It would be simple, cheap and it would be a cure. It seemed to me that for the sake of patients this research had to be fast tracked. The sense of urgency and frustration with the medical community was partly due to my disposition and age. However, the primary reason was a practical one. I was driven to get this theory proven quickly to provide curative treatment for the millions of people suffering with ulcers around the world.

Becoming increasingly frustrated with the negative response to my work I realized I had to have an animal model and decided to use myself. Much has been written about the episode and I certainly had no idea it would become as important as it has. I didn't actually expect to become as ill as I did. I didn't discuss it with the ethics committee at the hospital. More significantly, I didn't discuss it in detail with Adrienne. She was already convinced about the risk of these bacteria and I knew I would never get her approval. This was one of those occasions when it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission. I was taken by surprise by the severity of the infection. When I came home with my biopsy results showing colonization and classic histological damage to my stomach, Adrienne suggested it was time to treat myself. I had a successful infection, I had proved my point.

Fortunately, Marshall's treatment was successful and several more tightly monitored studies soon followed. Just over 20 years later, Marshall was awarded a Nobel prize in medicine for his work.

Image: Helicobacter pylori / D.J. Kelly, University of Sheffield



People really need to find a different word than "who" to use when referring to doctors in headlines. It messes some of us up.