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Barry Marshall, from Quack to Nobel Prize

I love stories about quacks who become prophets. Medical breakthroughs are often made by doctors who are ridiculed by their peers.

In 1983, Barry Marshall and John Warren presented a paper to the Australian Gastroenterological Society claiming that stomach ulcers are caused by infection. They never finished their paper because they were laughed off the stage. Barry Marshall became so upset that he swallowed a vial of the bacterial culture, went into shock and almost died. He had to be hospitalized and was saved by massive doses of intravenous antibiotics.

Stomach Ulcers Caused by Acid?
The prevailing theory was that stomach acids digest stomach linings to cause ulcers, and treatment was to put a tube down a person’s nose and into his stomach and pour two ounces of cream down the tube every 30 minutes. This didn’t cure ulcers, but 96 ounces of cream per day could cause a heart attack, and we now know that cream causes the stomach to produce ever more acid.

Ignored by Their Fellow Physicians
In 1868, Adolph Kussmaul, Professor of Medicine at Heidelberg (1857), thought that stomach ulcers were caused by infection. In 1940, Dr. Frank D. Gorham of St. Louis said that he had found that intramuscular injections of bismuth helped heal ulcers by killing germs. Also in 1940, Dr. A. Stone Freedberg, of Harvard found curved bacteria, now called H. pylori, in the stomachs of ulcer patients in Boston. However his chief of service, Dr. Herrman L. Blumgart, told him to stop fooling with stomach diseases and stick to his specialty of cardiology. He became a leading heart researcher, instead of the person who cured stomach ulcers.

In 1946, Dr. Constance Guion at New York Hospital presented a paper on how she treated stomach ulcers with the antibiotic chlortetracycline. Her fellow physicians at the famous Cornell Medical School criticized her so severely that she abandoned her idea of prescribing antibiotics for ulcers.

Enter John Lykudis, a Greek physician practicing in Missolonghi, Greece, a town of about 10,000 people. Lykudis developed a bleeding ulcer and cured himself with antibiotics. Since antibiotics worked for him, he decided to try them on his patients who had ulcers. In the 1950′s, he presented his findings to professors at several Greek medical schools. His colleagues laughed at him, and were jealous because people from all over the world came to his small town to have him treat their stomach ulcers.

Lykudis knew that he was right and the rest of the world was wrong, so he went to the Greek Minister of Health and even the prime minister of Greece. Both referred him to the chairmen of the department of medicine at Athens Medical School, who treated him as a nut. He submitted a paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association and it was rejected on September 1, 1956, with a rejection letter stating: “it does not seem appropriate for our journal.” He died in 1980, still viewed as a quack.

Vindication At Last
Three years after Lykudis’ death, Barry Marshall presented his groundbreaking paper about Helicobacter Pylori and stomach ulcers. He never got to finish his presentation because he was laughed off the stage. It took more than ten years for his theory to be confirmed by other researchers. Today, Barry Marshall has the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria. He is revered worldwide as the person who cured stomach ulcers (Lancet, November 6, 1999 pp 1634). More on Helicobacter pylori

Other Quacks Who Became Prophets
In the 1960s, Kilmer McCully was fired by Harvard Medical School because he had the nerve to state that lack of vitamin B12 causes heart attacks. He was at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital when I was there. He had to leave the Mass General and Harvard Medical School for a small hospital in Rhode Island because he preached that lack of folic acid, B12 or pyridoxine causes heart attacks. Today, his theories are solid and the quack is now a respected prophet.

Thomas McPherson Brown first proposed that rheumatoid arthritis is caused by infection with mycoplasma in 1939 and he was ignored by his colleagues. He died in 1988, still considered a quack. Now nine prospective double blind studies show that antibiotics are an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Most doctors still criticize the few doctors who treat their rheumatoid arthritis patients with antibiotics. However, today any doctor who refuses to give antibiotics to an ulcer patient or who fails to treat B12, folic acid or pyridoxine deficiencies would be guilty of malpractice.

May 5th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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