To Content Pane
small text size normal text size large text size
Start of main content

Professor Barry James MARSHALL

73rd Congregation (2013)

Professor Barry James MARSHALL
Doctor of Science


This is a story with two introductions. The first one goes like this. Once upon a time there was a mischievous boy, growing up with his family initially in isolated desert towns in Western Australia in the 1950 and 60s. He advised his younger brother to jump out of a tree and the brother broke his arm. He was left in charge of his younger sister and when she drank some kerosene out of a milk bottle he was able to call the emergency number and she was saved – but he was the one who had left the bottle of kerosene in her reach. He repaired his father’s electric drill but accidentally swapped over the neutral and earth wires, and when his father tried to use it while standing on wet grass he almost went into orbit.


Not a naughty boy exactly then: more an inquisitive and ingenious experimenter, with his father’s talent for making things work. He built slingshots and bombs, a Morse code set, a hydrogen generator for balloons, guns and crystal sets; and despite the incident with the kerosene he was a responsible elder brother of whom his parents were proud.


His father was a highly respected mechanic, a fitter and turner, who outgrew those small towns, and his mother wanted her children to have all the benefits of a university education, so she eventually moved the family to Perth. When university came along the boy wanted to be an electrical engineer, as his earlier interests and his father’s career might have suggested. But unfortunately his mathematical ability wasn’t quite up to the demands of calculus, so he chose medicine instead. The boy’s name was Barry Marshall.


The second introduction might begin, once upon a time there was a gastric bug. Anyone who has experienced it can easily recall that persistent burning discomfort in the stomach cause by an actual or incipient peptic ulcer. Until the mid-1980s standard medical advice had always been to avoid spicy or acid foods, take an antacid tablet and try to reduce stress. This never worked for long. Many people suffered from ulcers all their lives, and even developed stomach cancer. But now after a simple course of antibiotics the problem is usually solved. The discovery that peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium, the now-famous little organism called Helicobacter pylori, has been called the most significant in the history of gastroenterology; and it has other dimensions too, including in the fields of cancer research and immunology.


As with other truly game-changing scientific breakthroughs, however, this one initially met with almost universal resistance and scepticism in the scientific community. Science works by trying as hard as it can to disprove its own hypotheses, and sometimes this can make it hard for even the best discoveries to find widespread acceptance. After three years, from 1981 to 1984, the two scientists who discovered Helicobacter pylori were frustrated. They had to do something to convince the community. Experiments with animal models were not working.


This is where the two introductions to our story connect. Only that mischievous and ingenious boy who nearly killed his brother to see what happened if you fell out of a tree, saved his sister from poisoning herself with something she shouldn't have drunk, and electrocuted his own father when trying to help him with his equipment, could have had the idea of experimenting on himself to prove his medical hypothesis, and thus save so many from chronic pain and even the risk of death. Barry Marshall was one of those two scientists, and his fame was assured when he decided to use himself as the animal subject of his experiment. As he says in his own autobiography, he did not discuss this first with his wife, as he usually did with his work, because “this was one of those occasions when it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission”. After performing a baseline endoscopy he drank the contents of a culture dish and infected himself with the Helicobacter pylori, becoming very ill shortly afterwards, but then curing himself two weeks later.


This was far from the end of the story as far as publicizing the research and convincing the community was concerned, but it was the single most crucial turning-point. The journalists were intrigued, and their stories were followed by contacts from hundreds of patients who read the story and asked him to treat them. Then came the backing from Proctor and Gamble, and more work from a research laboratory at the University of Virginia, where Professor Marshall stayed for ten years. During that time many more stories were run in the press and on television; the BBC show “Ulcer Wars” is still being shown around the world and is now free to see on YouTube. Finally in 1994 the National Institutes of Health in the United States made a public statement that “the key to treatment of duodenal and gastric ulcer is the detection and eradication of Helicobacter Pylori. In the same year the World Health Organization accepted that Helicobacter Pylori is a causative factor in stomach cancer. That adventurous boy’s hypothesis and experiment had been officially accepted at last. His discovery has been compared to the development of the polio vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.


Professor Marshall returned to Perth soon after, and he still lives there with his wife. They have four children and five grandchildren. In 1999 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science; in 2008 he was elected as a Foreign Member of the US National Academy of Science. He is also a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He was made a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia in 2007. And in 2005 Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”.


For his unique and historic contribution to human health, it gives me great pleasure, Mr Vice-Chancellor, to present to you Professor Barry James Marshall, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.