Q&A with BARRY MARSHALL, Discover 2010.
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
This doctor drank infectious broth, gave himself an ulcer, and solved a medical mystery. The medical elite thought they knew what caused ulcers, but they were wrong.
For years an obscure doctor hailing from Australia’s hardscrabble west coast watched in horror as ulcer patients fell so ill that many had their stomach removed or bled until they died. That physician, an internist named Barry Marshall, was tormented because he knew there was a simple treatment for ulcers, which at that time afflicted 10 percent of all adults. In 1981 Marshall began working with Robin Warren, the Royal Perth Hospital pathologist who, two years earlier, discovered the gut could be overrun by hardy, corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Biopsying ulcer patients and culturing the organisms in the lab, Marshall traced not just ulcers but also stomach cancer to this gut infection. The cure, he realized, was readily available: antibiotics. But mainstream gastroenterologists were dismissive, holding on to the old idea that ulcers were caused by stress.
Unable to make his case in studies with lab mice (because H. pylori affects only primates) and prohibited from experimenting on people, Marshall grew desperate. Finally he ran an experiment on the only human patient he could ethically recruit: himself. He took some H. pylori from the gut of an ailing patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it. As the days passed, he developed gastritis, the precursor to an ulcer: He started vomiting, his breath began to stink, and he felt sick and exhausted. Back in the lab, he biopsied his own gut, culturing H. pylori and proving unequivocally that bacteria were the underlying cause of ulcers.
Marshall recently sat down with DISCOVER senior editor Pam Weintraub in a Chicago hotel, wearing blue jeans and drinking bottled water without a trace of Helicobacter. The man The Star once called “the guinea-pig doctor” can now talk about his work with the humor and passion of an outsider who has been vindicated. For their work on H. pylori, Marshall and Warren shared a 2005 Nobel Prize. Today the standard of care for an ulcer is treatment with an antibiotic. And stomach cancer—once one of the most common forms of malignancy—is almost gone from the Western world.
Having rid much of the globe of two dread diseases, Marshall is now turning his old enemy into an ally. As a clinical professor of microbiology at the University of Western Australia, he is working on flu vaccines delivered by brews of weakened Helicobacter. And in an age when many doctors dismiss unexplained conditions as “all in the head,” Marshall’s story serves as both an inspiration and an antidote to hubris in the face of the unknown.