Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Discovery is messy, we mustn't try to clean it up

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (a Hungarian who hardly anybody has heard of) was recognised by a Nobel prize in 1937 as the man who discovered Vitamin C. In fact this is a typically messy scientific story. The discovery, in reality, relied on contributions from dozens of people going all the way back to James Lind, another forgotten man .

In 1747, almost 200 years before the work by Szent-Gyorgyi, Lind showed that scurvy could be prevented, and cured, by fruit juice. (He used lemons and the Royal Navy later relied on limes, this is the origin of the American term for the British: `Limeys'.) Apart from this Lind, who was a British naval officer, also has the distinction of being the man who conducted the first scientifically valid controlled clinical trial in history. He did this precisely in order to get the results concerning scurvy. This is a turning point in our civilisation which deserves as much credit as the work itself!

Along the way another key contribution came from Axel Holst and Theodore Frolich (circa 1900, really obscure guys) who discovered, by accident, that guinea pigs suffered from scurvy if their diet lacked fresh fruit and veg, just like people.  Most mammals cannot get scurvy because they make their own Vitamin C. With this discovery it became possible to study scurvy in the lab, and this is probably the origin of the term `guinea-pig' to mean a test subject in an experiment.

There was a final double-fuddle in this story.  First, the confirmation that the cure for scurvy had been positively identified used materials prepared and supplied by Szent-Gyorgyi to another lab. This work was published without giving him any credit which lead to serious bad feeling on all sides. Afterwards the Nobel committee gave Szent-Gyorgyi the 1937 Nobel Prize for medicine alone without crediting any of the guys who actually did the animal studies! A mess all round.

I supply this example (one of many I could have chosen) to illustrate the folly of the current narrow mindedness prevalent in the funding of research. If we legislate against a diverse range of apparently unconnected projects, competing laboratories, work that seem to have no use at the time, patience, and dumb luck, science will not be streamlined, it will be hobbled.

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