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If you like Barry Marshall's story, you might also like:
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Gertrude B. Elion,
David Ho,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
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Bert Vogelstein

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Barry Marshall
Barry Marshall
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Barry Marshall Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Medicine

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  Barry Marshall

It sounds like you had an intrinsic curiosity.

Barry Marshall: I was always curious and very interested in science, and always enjoyed school. Each year I would always be thinking, "Wow! Next year at school, or at college, I'll be able to do chemistry, or geometry that I can't do now." Or in medical school it was, "Wow! Next year I'll be able to do anatomy!" Cutting up dead bodies was my big goal in first-year medicine, and so it went on. Every year there was something exciting and wonderful that I was looking forward to the next year. Medicine is like that, just so varied that even after I graduated I thought I only wanted to be a general practitioner. But every single sub-specialty I did in my internship, I'd come home from the first week and I'd say to my wife, "I want to be a neurosurgeon. This is great!" Or, "I want to be a hematologist," or cancer specialist. Everything fascinated me, and it was really only because I got involved in this little project with the bacteria in the stomach that I ended up going into gastroenterology. Because any specialty would have made me perfectly happy.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Was your mother an influence on your interest in medicine?

Barry Marshall: Yes, she probably was an influence. She always had medical books around and nursing books. I was interested in anatomy and physiology, but you didn't have the intensive exposure to science that you have nowadays. I was also interested in engineering and electronics. I suppose I've been successful in some ways because of integrating practical approaches to medical problems, to diagnosis or treatment. For many years I told her I wouldn't be a doctor, because I felt that I'd be pressured into it. Finally, when I'd graduated and had my college applications there, I said, "Okay, I'm going to do medicine." And she said, "Oh, this is wonderful!" Everybody wants their son to be a doctor, I suppose.

Did she ever pressure you?

Barry Marshall Interview Photo
Barry Marshall: No, she didn't. After I went into med school, she went back and finished her nursing career. So it's been satisfying for me to be successful in medicine, because I know she'd get such pleasure out of it. There's not a lot of room left on my mantelpiece, and some of those awards, I can take them over to Mom's place and she puts them on her mantelpiece. That gives me a lot of pleasure to see that.

Did you get the sense that your father felt the same way?

Barry Marshall: My father always encouraged me. He was a tradesman and he probably left school a little earlier. He always had difficulty, I think, with engineering concepts, with mathematics and engineering. I think he always had an inferiority complex in that he didn't have the higher engineering degree, coming in through the trades. Really, it was very weird to have engineering or electronics degrees or anything like that in Western Australia when he went through. So he went about as far as he could go with what he had. I have to say that my father used to drink a few beers, and he would come home, and he was usually fairly a non-emotional kind of guy, a bit like me. But after he'd had a few drinks on Friday night, and I'd be there studying away at my anatomy, he'd come up and pat me on the shoulder and say, "You know, Barry, we're so proud of you, going through medical school," and have a tear in his eye. And I used to say, "Okay. Yeah, Dad. Okay. Off to bed now," and tuck him in. He's still a lot like that. It's kind of like the advertisement where the father and son are fishing and the father says, "I love you, son." And the son says, "You're not getting my Bud Lite."

Did you play a particular role in the family, in relation to your younger siblings?

Barry Marshall: I think I was given a lot of responsibility very early on, because my parents were struggling to make ends meet, looking after a family, buying a new house. We were on the very, very edge of civilization in Perth. Now there's miles and miles of suburbia, after where we were. But in those days there was a house, there was forest at the back of the block, and there were snakes and spiders and things around. My mother used to have to walk to the shop, so I would baby-sit the younger ones and change their diapers. I suppose it's a role that naturally comes to an eldest daughter, looking after the youngest children. But maybe because she was a nurse, it seemed quite natural for me to help out in all those different things. It gave me a lot of responsibility and honesty, I suppose. It also gave me a bit of pressure.

When I got up towards med school I knew that I might only get one chance. If I didn't make it through med school each year, perhaps I'd have a fine life, but really, I didn't consider that I'd have any backup and a chance to have another go at it. So I always felt that the pressure was on, and that I needed to make the most of this opportunity that I had.

So when you decided to become a doctor, you didn't know what specialty you would end up in?

Barry Marshall: No. In the early '70s, most doctors were just general practitioners. The specialties were there, but when you went into medical school you mainly just went in to be a doctor. My mother still wishes that I was a real doctor. In other words, a general practitioner, because she's always trying to hit me up for a course of antibiotics, or write her a prescription. I try to fight back. I try to make her go to her own doctor, but it seems so convenient to have me around who can do it for her.

If I was going to be a specialist, she wanted me to be an ophthalmologist, because even when you're examining the patients, you don't have to touch them. You still wear a suit, and you look at them through a lens from a distance. I did have an eye condition when I was about eight years of age, and I used to see this specialist in the city. All he would do is look at my eyes with a lens for about two seconds and prescribe some eye drops, and off I went. That seemed to be the pinnacle of medicine as far as she was concerned. But I think gastroenterology is interesting.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 16:34 EDT
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