Have you ever wondered why you did not see something in your work or your field before someone else came up with it? This is the blind spot. We all experience this phenomenon, especially the experts. Through the discovery of many things in our current history, you always find things which were applied in one field, well-known in another field, but nobody had thought about applying this idea in a different field. I am amazed about this in my life, and I try very hard to explore these blind spots and become more creative. We all have to fight the common understanding of things in order to introduce innovation.
One of the biggest discoveries in the field of microbiology is the presence of bacteria in the stomach. Almost everyone believed that the harsh acidity in the stomach would prevent any bacteria from growing. What is interesting about this blind spot is that many scientists saw the bacteria in the human stomach but refused to believe it (Kevin Ashton, 2015).
J. Robin Warren, a pathologist in Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia, saw bacteria all the time, but whenever he told people about it, everyone dismissed it as not an important discovery. Frankly, Dr. Warren was puzzled by this. With this dismissal of his observation and the challenge of self-doubt as a researcher, Dr. Warren started to collect slides from patients’ stomachs for two years to prove his hunch of discovering something big.
Dr. Warren’s frustration continued for several years until he met a newly hired gastroenterologist. Dr. Marshall as a new physician at a new research institute was looking for a new research project to start his career. The two researchers teamed together and Dr. Marshall agreed to send Dr.Warren biopsies (tissue removed from a living body to discover the presence, cause, or extent of a disease) from patients who were ulcer-free. After several examinations of all these biopsies and long hours of work, both men discovered that almost all the patients who had ulcers had bacteria growing in their stomachs. In other words, every patient who had erosion in the lining of the acidic passage at the beginning of the intestine had bacteria.
The discovery of bacteria in the ulcers of many patients was very important, but not surprising, because somehow a lot of people knew about it but did not think it was a big deal — blind spot! Drs. Marshall and Warren tried to grow the bacteria in the lab for several months without any success. Fortunately, during Easter of 1982, the hospital, where they worked, was busy with drug-resistant super-bug contamination so that the lab technician forgot the plates in the incubator for five days, instead of two days. The bacteria finally grew and was named Helicobacter pylori. When this discovery happened, you would think that the field will congratulate these two scientists, but what happened next was the opposite. Drs. Warren and Marshall sent their manuscript to one of the most prestigious journals called Lancet. The editor of the Lancet Medical Journal, Dr. Ian A. H. Munro, could not find any reviewers to evaluate the manuscript. Many scientists regarded the discovery as a mistake even without reading and evaluating the manuscript. Luckily, Dr. Munro was a visionary leader who campaigned for human rights, nuclear disarmament, and medicine for the poor. Dr. Munro reviewed the work and decided to publish the manuscript, adding an editorial comment on the discovery, risking so much on the new discovery. In 2005, Drs. Marshall and Warren won a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine“for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”
The whole field of gastroenterology had a blind spot for years and years. The following research done by Kevin Ashton in his book represents how big the blind spot was:
- Many scientists revisited the collected biopsies and amazingly discovered the bacteria. One of the brave scientists wrote “Failing to discover H. pylori was my biggest mistake.“
- In 1967, Susumu Ito , a professor at Harvard Medical School, published the results of a biopsied ulcer of his own stomach using an electron microscope, labeling it as “Spirillum–a bacterium with a rigid spiral structure, found in stagnant water and sometimes causing disease” without commenting on the picture. In that year, the American Physiological Society Handbook of physiology published the picture which was seen by tens of thousands of scientists– none of them saw or commented on this.
- In 1940, a researcher in Harvard Medical School, A. Stone Freedberg, saw the bacteria. His adviser told him that he was wrong and asked him to stop the research.
- The presence of H. pylori was found in medical literature going back to 1875. When Dr. Robin Warren discovered the bacterium, it had been seen and not believed for 104 years.
This blind spot might be one of the biggest in science. I always wonder what will happen to the million of small blind spots which nobody has seen yet. If you want to be creative in your life, find these blind spots.
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