In the early 1980s, two medical researchers from Perth, Australia, made an astonishing discovery: Ulcers are caused by bacteria. The researchers, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, identified a tiny spiral-shaped type of bacteria as the culprit. (It would later be named Helicobacter pylori). The significance of this discovery was enormous: If ulcers were caused by bacteria, they could be cured. In fact, they could be cured within a matter of days by simple treatment with antibiotics.
The medical world, however, did not rejoice. There were no celebrations for Marshall and Warren, who had almost single-handedly improved the health prospects of several hundred million human beings. The reason for the acclaim was simple: No one believed them.
There were several problems with the bacteria story. The first problem was common sense. The acid in the stomach is potent stuff – it can, obviously, eat through a thick steak, and it’s (less obviously) strong enough to dissolve a nail. It was ludicrous to think that bacteria could survive in such an environment. It would be like stumbling across an igloo in the Sahara.
The second problem was the source. At the time of the discovery, Robin Warren was a staff pathologist at hospital in Perth; Barry Marshall was a thirty-year-old internist in training, not even a doctor yet. The medical community expects important discoveries to come from Ph.D.s at research universities or professors at large, world-class medical centers. Internists do not cure diseases that affect 10 percent of the world’s population.
The final problem was the location. A medical researcher in Perth is like a physicist from Mississippi. Science is science, but, thanks to basic human snobbery, we tend to think it will emerge from some places but no others.
Marshall and Warren could not even get their research paper accepted by a medical journal. When Marshall presented their findings at a professional conference, the scientists snickered. One of the researchers who heard one of his presentations commented that he “simply didn’t have the demeanor of a scientist”.