Thursday, October 06, 2005

A triumph for scientific freedom

Today's Boston Globe has a wonderful column by Madeline Drexler about new Nobel Prize winners Drs Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, whose determination and objectivity overturned the conventional wisdom that stomach ulcers were caused by smoking, diet, and stress. Marshall on the reaction of the medical scientific community to his hypothesis:
...at an infectious disease conference in Belgium, a questioner in the audience asked Marshall if he thought bacteria caused at least some stomach ulcers. Marshall shot back that he believed bacteria caused all stomach ulcers.

Those were fighting words. The young physician from Perth was telling the field's academically pedigreed experts that they had it all wrong. "It was impossible to displace the dogma," Marshall explained to me in a jaunty, wide-ranging conversation several years ago. "Their agenda was to shut me up and get me out of gastroenterology and into general practice in the outback."
Drexler:
...if science is to advance, scientists need the freedom and the funding to let their imaginations roam.
Sure, Madeline, but you will be banished to the outback today if you let your imagine roam into the mystery of gender. Ask Dr. Summers.

A superb story of this work and its profound effects on medicine by Judith Hooper was published in the Atlantic Monthly of February 1999. Entitled "A New Germ Theory" (subscription may be required) it is well worth a read. It may change your perspective. It changed mine.

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