No, this is not about Harriet Miers. I thought we could all use a break from that disaster.
The first Nobel Prize of 2005, for Physiology and Medicine, was announced this morning. It was awarded to Drs. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, both of Australia, for their discovery in 1982 that peptic ulcers are caused by the previously unidentified bacterium Helicobacter pylori.
Unlike Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry or, God forbid, the Bank of Sweden Prize for Economics, the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine have usually done something that has directly, identifiably, and promptly improved the quality of life of many, many people. This is undeniably true of this year's prizewinners. Before the discovery of this infectious agent, people with ulcerating lesions of the duodenum were told that their malady was the result of stress and a difficult personality, and were told to calm down and eat bland food for the rest of their lives. Their untreated infections caused not only pain, but various cancers of the stomach and esophagus. The modern treatment for peptic ulcer is a round of inexpensive antibiotics, which is effective in virtually 100% of infections.
Drs. Warren and Marshall were treated with extreme skepticism by the medical establishment when their theory was first proposed. Conventional medical wisdom had held, since the dawn of the germ theory of disease, that infectious agents could not survive in the harshly acidic environment of the human stomach. Because there were no suitable animal patients on which to experiment (and even today, no animal other than humans has been shown to harbor H. pylori), Marshall infected himself with a culture-grown colony of Helicobacter, made himself gravely ill, and proved the hypothesis. In the wake of this discovery, the role of infectious agents in a number of other chronic conditions, including heart disease, has been looked at anew.
Science has ever developed thus -- a couple of guys get an idea, everyone else tells them they're insane, they keep working at it, they take some risks, they absorb some insults, and in the end they wipe the eyes of their former detractors. Assumptions are made to be challenged, not blindly accepted, even if they have been held for a hundred years or more.
I'm sure you get my (continental) drift.