Dr. Marshall’s unique discovery of how stomach ulcers result from bacteria and can be cured using antibiotics won him the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Barry J. Marshall was born on September 30, 1951 in Kalgoorlie, Australia. While he was training to be a doctor, he joined pathologist J. Robin Warren to investigate the issues with stomach bacteria. The bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori, was discovered to cause ulcers and gastritis, diseases that Marshall soon learned could only be cured by the use of antibiotics. Marshall and Warren shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their exceptional work.
The Early Years
When Barry Marshall was growing up in Kalgoorlie, West Australia, he was very interested in learning as much as he could about science. He lived in Klagoorlie and Carnarvon until moving to Perth at the age of 8. His father held various jobs and his mother was a nurse. He was the oldest of four siblings. He aspired to become an engineer one day, but felt that he didn’t have the math skills to follow through with that career choice. So he decided on a career in medicine instead.
Marshall attended Newman College and the University of Western Australia, where he received a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 1974. He married his wife Adrienne in 1972 and they have four children.
Research and Discovery
In 1981, when Marshall was training in internal medicine, he learned that a pathologist named J. Robin Warren had found bacteria in stomach biopsies. At that time, it was believed that bacteria could not survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The two joined together to learn more about the subject.
Marshall and Warren soon learned that many gastritis and stomach ulcer patients had the spiral bacteria, which would eventually be recognized as Helicobacter pylori. Further research showed that H. pylori could cause serious diseases. Marshall realized that antibiotics could replace the current treatment options for ulcers.
The Human Guinea Pig
At the time, members of the scientific community believed that ulcers only resulted from stress or diet, and that the presence of H. pylori did not prove that the bacteria led to the formation of ulcers. Marshall felt that more evidence was needed to convince the medical community otherwise. Research with lab animals was not allowed, so he decided to use a human subject, himself, to prove his point.
At the age of 32 after verifying that he did not already harbor H. pylori in his stomach, Dr. Marshall drank a mixture of cultured bacteria that was inside a petri dish. He was expecting to develop an ulcer within several years, but to his surprise, In a few days, he came down with gastritis. Exams of his inflamed stomach showed that H. pylori was present. And taking antibiotics cured him.
Even with this new evidence, ulcer treatment protocols didn’t change overnight. It wasn’t until 1994 that the National Institutes of Health stated that antibiotics should be the standard approach when treating ulcers. This way, patients who had dealt with ulcers no longer had to depend on taking antacids on a daily basis or result to the more extreme case of having to undergo surgery.
Marshall was able to reverse decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid. His discovery led to a breakthrough in understanding a causative link between H. pylori infection and stomach cancer.
After his work at Fremantle Hospital, Marshall did research at Royal Perth Hospital (1985–86) and at the University of Virginia, USA (1986–Present), before returning to Australia while remaining on the faculty of the University of Virginia. He held a Burnet Fellowship at the University of Western Australia (UWA) from 1998–2003. Marshall continues research related to H. pylori and runs the H. pylori Research Laboratory at UWA.
In 2007, Marshall accepted a part-time appointment at the Pennsylvania State University.
Recognition and Future Projects
Marshall and Warren received many awards for their work, including a Warren Alpert Prize and an Australian Medical Association Award. In 2005, the pair was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Marshall was also honored in 2007 by being named a Companion of the Order of Australia the highest civic honor in the country.
Along with creating various academic posts, Dr. Marshall founded and serves as the scientific director for Ondek, a biotechnology company. The firm looks for ways to use modified H. pylori bacteria to deliver drugs, vaccines and other treatments.