Not that long ago, Barry Marshall was an obscure physician studying the etiology of ulcers at a hospital in Perth, Australia—several thousand literal and figurative miles from the center of the medical universe. His work was unconventional, not to say heretical, and in 1986, he was invited to discuss it at a gastroenterology conference in the United States. His wife came along and, while doing some sightseeing, overheard a conversation among some other gastroenterologists’ wives who happened to be sitting in front of her on a bus. “They were talking about this terrible person that they imported from Australia to speak,” Marshall told me. “You know: ‘How could they put such rubbish in the conference?’ “
In 2005, that “terrible person” won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Marshall, along with his colleague and fellow Nobel winner Robin Warren, proved that up to 90 percent of peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori—not by stress, as medical wisdom had long held. In most of the interviews in this series, I’ve talked to people about being wrong: about what they’ve learned from their own mistakes, and about how their work—whether as an astronaut or speculator or lawyer or marriage counselor—affects how they think about error. But in this interview, Marshall and I talk about being right. In particular, we discuss how it feels when everyone thinks you’re wrong, what it takes to get the scientific establishment to change its mind, and what it’s like to finally be proven right. All that, plus a guest appearance by Adrienne Marshall, Barry’s wife, who describes how she felt when Barry decided to test his ulcer theory by drinking a batch of bacteria.