Strangely Charming: Treemendous Scientists

Opinion by Jack Cackler
Feb. 17, 2010, 12:31 a.m.

Strangely Charming: Treemendous ScientistsWhile here at Stanford scientists clearly stride at the top of the social strata, the public face of modern science is often painted as dry and repetitive, and conducted by nebbish, bespectacled men and women in windowless labs. This is a tragedy, as it conceals how truly exciting and wonderful the world of modern science can be. While it is easy to get lost in a world racing for grant funding, IRB approvals and repeat trials, the simple fact is that science has landed people on the moon, enabled instant communication around the globe and cured countless diseases, all of which would have seemed absurd a hundred years ago. Every so often, there comes along a scientist who throws caution to the winds and discovers something really cool not just through clever reasoning, but also through sheer brazen audacity. Today I would like to take a step back to celebrate some of the true badasses in science history.

Edward Jenner was a surgeon from Berkeley, England (don’t worry, not that Berkeley), who developed the concept of vaccination. Jenner theorized that cow pox (a non-lethal relative of small pox) exposure helped generate immunity to small pox after noticing with local farmers that milkmaids tended not to get small pox. Incidentally, the term vaccine is derived from the latin word vacca for cow, bearing homage to Jenner’s ingenuity. The real hero of the story, however, is an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, who Jenner tested his theory on in 1796. Somehow, vaccination being an undiscovered and certainly not well understood concept, Jenner convinced both the boy and his mother that it was a good idea to a) infect him intentionally with cow pox b) expose him to attenuated small pox and c) hope for the best. Having given more than a couple tours to Stanford parents, I am not sure how many of you reading this would have been allowed to volunteer for this experiment at age eight. Nevertheless, the test was a success, and vaccination spread rapidly throughout the world. It is arguable that because a young James Phipps volunteered his life to science on little more than a hunch, more lives have been saved than have been saved by any other single action in history.

Werner Forssmann was a German surgeon who was looking for a method to access the heart to deliver drugs locally, rather than throughout the body. He had worked in urology and had the bright idea that a urinary catheter could be modified to be threaded to the bloodstream eventually reaching the heart, a process now known as cardiac catheterization. After being told it was incredibly dangerous, he decided the only person he could ethically test out the procedure on was himself. Read the next sentence carefully. After his assistant tried to stop him, he tied her to a table, anesthetized his arm, cut open, and threaded a catheter through his veins into his heart. He proceeded to walk down the hall to the X-Ray room, and asked for a picture of his handiwork, to confirm that the catheter had indeed gone into his heart. While the stunt cost him his job, he eventually won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Medicine and has since saved countless lives.

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were doctors in Australia who were studying gastric ulcers. As the stomach is filled with hydrochloric acid, it was long thought to be much too harsh an environment for any bacteria to survive. Despite substantial evidence that bacteria, particularly Helicobacter pylori, were indeed the cause of ulcers, the scientific community was reticent to modify their accepted principle that nothing could survive in HCl. Growing frustrated, Marshall decided to prove them wrong the easiest way he knew, by chugging a beaker of H. pylori. Unlike Phipps or Forssman, who were hoping their daring adventures would surprisingly end safely, Marshall’s goal from the outset was to get sick in order to prove that bacteria were the source of the ulcers. Dangerous? Yes. Outrageous? Certainly. But effective? Absolutely. His work revolutionized the scientific community’s understanding of bacteria and aided countless people who have now used antibiotics to cure stomach ulcers. For their work, Marshall and Warren received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

I have two real points here. The first is that science is very exciting. While the pursuit of enlightenment is enough to fascinate me, it is good to know that there is science out there every bit as riveting as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The larger point is that while “conventional” science is usually a great method toward lighting the lamp of knowledge, sometimes bold determination, backed by carefully reasoned scientific insight, can be tremendously effective. I am not advocating that each of you run down to Herrin to pound a flask of your favorite bacteria, but I do have one request. No matter what you are passionate about, never be afraid to be bold. Sometimes it is the craziest ideas we learn the most from.

Be Tree. Jack’s still offering cookies for any mistakes you find, and you can reach him at [email protected].

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