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The Nobel committee hits and misses

While assembling slides for the UMBC clinical trials course I’m helping with, I was reminded that Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill never received the Nobel Prize for medicine despite conclusively showing by the way of a new-fangled method called a prospective cohort study — it was the late 1950s — that tobacco kills. They both did the work in their early middle age and lived into their 90s, so it’s not like they didn’t make it to see their work validated (like, say, Oppenheimer not being there for the confirmation of his black hole theory). Of course, the committee is not infallible — they did hand out the prize to a lobotomist — but the errors of omission are so much worse.

My same slide deck also mentions Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who (deservedly!) won the medical Nobel for another disease pathogenesis discovery: they showed that the helicobacter pylori bacterium — and not stressful living, bad thoughts, lack of dietary milk and butter, or whatnot — is responsible for gastritis. Marshall conclusively proved this by ingesting the bacteria himself back in 1985; the Nobel Committee was impressed enough by this feat of IRB avoidance to hand him and Warren the prize — in 2005, the year of Dr. Doll’s death!

He died in July and the prize was announced in October so I shall refrain from making any inferrences about the cause of death.

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