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Poking a Hole in the Ulcer Theory

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For decades it was believed that stress and poor eating habits caused ulcers. Now the Nobel Prize for Medicine has gone to the researchers who proved that ulcers are caused by a bacterium. What else do we know that isn't really so?


Like millions of other people, my father had an ulcer. In fact, he was considered a textbook case. My father was told he had to expect to have an ulcer because he had so much stress. He suffered stress from his divorce and stress from drinking. He had stress from his work and even more stress from not working. He had stress because he couldn't sleep because of his ulcer, and he had an ulcer because he had stress. He would stay up until the wee hours watching old Japanese science fiction films on channel nine, holding his stomach and going, `Oh.'

My father packed his pockets with small white tablets--I think they were called Amphojels--he'd pop compulsively. The tablets lined his stomach with some kind of milky fluid that was supposed to soothe the burning sensation he had in his craw for most of his adult life. Some days he could eat nothing more demanding than rice pudding, cream cheese and saltines, because of his ulcer.

Ulcers caused a lot of people a lot of pain. This week Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren of Australia won the Nobel Prize in medicine for establishing that ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress. Antibiotics can now banish most ulcers within a few weeks.

The doctors remembered this week that other scientists were dismissive when they began their research in the early 1980s. People said, `Don't waste your time. Everyone knows that stress causes ulcers.' Dr. Marshall told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, `It was like saying the Earth is round.'

In 1984, Dr. Marshall mixed himself a noxious cocktail containing ulcer bacteria to prove their theory. He says it didn't seem right to inflict the violent symptoms of an ulcer, which are too messy to recount here, on graduate students who are often volunteers in medical experiments because the idea that ulcers were caused by bacteria seemed so wild. But Drs. Warren and Marshall turned out to be so right, they made their own specialty almost antique. You can't study ulcers in Australia anymore, says Dr. Warren, because everyone who has one has been cured.

The Nobel Prize they received this week might remind us that much of what the best minds of our times know to be absolutely, certifiably true will one day turn out to be wrong, or at least highly incomplete. Now this doesn't mean that every idea that now sounds harebrained will turn out to be brilliant, but it does mean that human knowledge not only builds from one discovery to the next, but sometimes upends things that once seemed certain and decided.

You might remember that the next time you're tempted to begin a sentence, `But everybody knows that'...

(Soundbite of "A Puzzlement")

Mr. YUL BRYNNER: (Singing; as King Mongkut) There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know. Very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago. In my head are many facts that, as a student, I have studied to procure. In my head are many facts of which I was more certain. I was sure. Is a puzzlement.

SIMON: Yul Brynner, "The King and I."

Eighteen minutes past the hour.

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Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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