Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
In an elitist world we judge people and their discoveries by the places they emerge from rather than their merits.
Dr Barry James Marshall was born in Kalgoorlie, Australia and went to the University of Western Australia. He completed his MBBS and then undertook research. Working with Robbin Warren in Perth, he wrote a paper which hypothesised the cause of ulcers was bacterial and not due to excessive acid production.
In 1979, Marshall was appointed Registrar in Medicine at the Royal Perth Hospital. He met Dr. Robin Warren, a pathologist interested in gastritis, during internal medicine fellowship training at Royal Perth Hospital in 1981. Together, they both studied the presence of spiral bacteria in association with gastritis. In 1982, they performed the initial culture of H. pylori and developed their hypothesis on the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers and gastric cancer. It has been claimed that the H. pylori theory was ridiculed by established scientists and doctors, who did not believe that any bacteria could live in the acidic environment of the stomach. Marshall was quoted as saying in 1998 that "everyone was against me, but I knew I was right."
He went to the extent of infecting himself with the bacteria to show that he was right.
After failed attempts to infect piglets in 1984, Sam Wang reported that Marshall, after having a baseline endoscopy done, drank a broth containing cultured H. pylori, expecting to develop, perhaps years later, an ulcer. He was surprised when, only three days later, he developed vague nausea and halitosis, due to the achlorhydria. There was no acid to kill bacteria in the stomach and their waste products manifested as bad breath, noticed by his wife. On days 5–8, he developed achlorhydric (no acid) vomiting. On day eight, he had a repeat endoscopy, which showed massive inflammation (gastritis), and a biopsy from which H. pylori was cultured, showing it had colonised his stomach. On the fourteenth day after ingestion, a third endoscopy was done, and Marshall began to take antibiotics. Marshall did not develop antibodies to H. pylori, suggesting that innate immunity can sometimes eradicate acute H. pylori infection. Marshall's illness and recovery, based on a culture of organisms extracted from a patient, fulfilled Koch's postulates for H. pylori and gastritis, but not for peptic ulcers. This experiment was published in 1985 in the Medical Journal of Australia and is among the most cited articles from the journal.
The problem was not that Dr Marshall was proposing something hard to fathom. The problem was that he was proposing it out of Perth. If instead, he had been sitting in London or Boston, the world would have lapped up what he had to say. If this same research was to emerge out of Harvard or Cambridge, even the most ardent critique would have paused to think.
Instead, it came out of Perth.
Name one famous thing that came out of Perth.
Yeah. I thought so.
So he was left with no choice but to infect himself to prove that he was not talking rubbish and was right.
This is not about science but about society.
It is about the elitism of assuming that there are certain places that automatically produce value and others not so much.
Starting with the theory of evolution, the sheer quantum of garbage that is taken to be gospel truth is immense. All just because it came out of the right place.
The number of fundamental insights and theories that have been neglected or sidelined just because they did not come out of the right places would also be immense.
This does not just apply to theories. It can also be seen in recruitment; in which entrepreneur gets funded and how the law treats different people who have done the same thing.
We have an elitist bubble. If you happen to have been a part of that bubble you will have a tremendously easy time in life. This is part of the reason students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to join institutions where they will listen to 20 to 30 professors spout garbage. It is the easiest way to buy your way into the bubble.
If you are not in the bubble - you will have to infect yourself to prove what you are saying is true.
P.S. A similar thing happened to a Swiss patent clerk who revolutionised physics in 1905 but was not recognised for years after. Albert Einstein was not the product of any elitist school. He was lucky that the world wars made it a fertile time for any fringe theory to be dredged out as well and he found recognition.