The One About Beating an Old Story with a New Story

Before 1982 Everyone Knew that Ulcers Were Caused by Stress and Spicy Food.

Robin Warren (left) and Barry Marshall (right) in 1982
In 1982 Dr. Barry Marshall and Dr. Robin Warren went from suburban obscurity to international fame by poisoning themselves for the sake of science.

Before their work in 1982, it was established that peptic ulcers were caused by increased acid levels associated with excessive stress and spicy foods.

But Marshall and Warren suspected that bacteria could also be a villain. After months of testing, their suspicions were not being confirmed by their results.

Time and time again, the bacteria-laden swabs came failed to show the bacterium Heliccobbacter pylori they were looking for.

Then, a lab technician’s oversight gave a single swab an extra day before being destroyed. On this neglected swab they saw the bacteria they were looking for.

They repeated their experiment with the extra day of incubation and regularly found the bacteria. Their work was ignored by the established community for years.

To prove their point and get the traction in the medical community they needed to move forward. The created the world’s worst tasting smoothie. A beaker chock full of bacteria culture. Within three days, both showed symptoms and by day eight both showed massive inflammation. They then removed the bacteria with an antibiotic.

Although their data had been well established, it was their dramatic story involving personal risk that smashed the world’s view on curing peptic ulcers.

In their induction into the Royal Society, their certification of elections reads that their work, “produced one of the most radical and important changes in medical perception in the last 50 years.”

Both continued to have distinguished careers, Marshall overseas, Warren remained in Australia and developed a breath test to diagnose peptic ulcers. Both were awarded the Noble Prize in 2005.

Marshall and Warren receiving their Nobel Science Award in 2005

First read in Callahan, Shawn The role of stories in data storytelling Discover Magazine


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