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Zeros to heroes: Ulcer truth was hard to stomach

Back in 1984, a young Australian doctor called Barry Marshall swallowed a nasty-tasting solution of bacteria. This was no accident. He did it to convince his peers that his suspicions about a highly prevalent disease were not as far-fetched as they thought.

In 1981, Marshall had met pathologist Robin Warren, who had found curved bacteria in inflamed stomach tissue. In further studies, they found that this bacterium, later named Helicobacter pylori, was present in most people who had inflammation or ulcers of the stomach or gut. Like two long-forgotten German researchers in 1875, they concluded that these bacteria were to blame.

"I was met with constant criticism that my conclusions were premature," Marshall later wrote. "My results were disputed and disbelieved, not on the basis of science but because they simply could not be true."

It is often claimed that doctors were wedded to the idea that ulcers were caused by excess stomach acid, or that they didn't believe that bacteria could grow in the stomach. In fact, the main reason for the scepticism, says Richard Harvey of the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, UK, was that four-fifths of ulcers were not in the stomach but further down the digestive tract.

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