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THE RIGHT CHEMISTRY: Good science is no laughing matter

A Palestinian doctor washes his hands prior to a joint operation with U.S. doctors to help Palestinian boy Abdullah Shawwa, 4, in the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009.
A Palestinian doctor washes his hands prior to a joint operation with U.S. doctors to help Palestinian boy Abdullah Shawwa, 4, in the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009.

Hand-washing by doctors was once mocked, as was the idea that Earth orbits the Sun. But Jim Humble is no Ignaz Semmelweis or Galileo.

By Joe Schwarcz 

“I was very sick and mainstream medicine let me down,” my correspondent informed me. “Then out of desperation I tried the Miracle Mineral Solution and it cured me in two weeks.”

When I responded that I didn’t think that this mixture of citric acid and sodium chlorite, a common bleaching agent, was supported by any evidence, he accused me of being an industry shill and told me that Jim Humble, the “inventor” of this cure-all, was deserving of a Nobel Prize. He finished by telling me to look at all the scientists who were first ridiculed but then revered after they were proven to be correct. The inference was that Humble, who is hardly humble when it comes to making claims, would eventually be recognized as a modern-day Galileo.

It is certainly true that there have been scientists and physicians who at first were ridiculed and were subsequently recognized as visionaries. Galileo is often presented as an example of someone who was first castigated because of his support of Copernicus’s theory that the Earth orbits the Sun, and was later rehabilitated as the “father of modern science.” Indeed, the Italian polymath was chastised, not because his science was shown to be incorrect, but because at the time the Catholic Church held the biblical view that the Earth was the centre of the universe. When evidence mounted that Galileo was correct, the Church acquiesced, although it took 350 years for Pope John Paul II to declare that Galileo had been “imprudently opposed.”

There are numerous other examples of scientific ideas that were first opposed then embraced. Edward Jenner, a late-18th-century country doctor, upon noting that that milkmaids never contracted smallpox, theorized that injections of secretions from people afflicted with cowpox, a mild disease acquired from cows, might afford protection against the far more serious smallpox. He offered proof by injecting pus taken from a milkmaid with cowpox into a cut made on the arm of a young boy whom he then exposed to smallpox. The boy turned out to be immune, and vaccination, the term taken from the Latin for “cow,” entered the lexicon. In spite of demonstrated successes, Jenner’s vaccination was ridiculed, with one famous cartoon depicting small cows bursting out of the bodies of inoculation “victims.” It took some 50 years for enough evidence to emerge to overcome the opposition, but in 1853 smallpox vaccination was made compulsory in England.

Then there is the famous case of Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis who in the mid-19th century urged physicians attending to women in labour to wash their hands. He had noted that “childbed” fever was less common in women who had delivered with the aid of midwives than with the help of doctors. Semmelweis speculated that doctors often came to the obstetrics ward after performing autopsies and were contaminating patients with “cadaverous particles.” He was ridiculed for suggesting that simple hand washing would reduce childbed fever, and it took Louis Pasteur’s formulation of the germ theory of disease many years later to allow hand washing to gain widespread acceptance. Incidentally, Pasteur’s contention that germs cause disease was also initially scoffed at and was only accepted after he managed to show experimentally that diseases such as chicken cholera, anthrax and rabies were transmitted by microbes.

A more recent case is Australian gastroenterologist Barry Marshall’s contention in the 1980s that ulcers are caused not by stress, spicy foods or hyperacidity, but by a bacterium. This idea was widely derided until Marshall, in a somewhat foolhardy experiment, swallowed a generous dose of Helicobacter pylori bacteria and developed gastric problems that were cured with antibiotics. This convinced researchers to organize proper trials, and before long antibiotic treatment of ulcers became common practice. In 2005 Marshall and his collaborator Robin Warren received the Nobel Prize for their work.

William Harvey’s concept of blood circulation, Gregor Mendel’s theories about the laws of inheritance, forensic pathologists Bennet Omalu’s contention that football players are at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy and German cardiologist Andreas Roland Gruntzig’s proposal that blocked coronary arteries can be opened with balloon angioplasty were all initially scorned but are now widely accepted. When physicist Robert Goddard proposed in the 1920s that he could launch a rocket into space he was excoriated by a New York Times editorial for not understanding that in the vacuum of space the exhaust of a rocket would have nothing to push at. That of course turned out to be wrong and Goddard is now regarded as one of the pioneers of space travel.

There is no doubt that there have been many scientists who were at first mocked and later venerated. But I would venture to say that Jim Humble will not be one of those. I rarely recommend that my readers watch a video, but I do urge you to watch this one .

It seems appropriate to end with Carl Sagan’s famous comment: “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

joe.schwarcz@mcgill.ca

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss).  

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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