About dogma, or things written in stone, or the stuff everyone knows:
For a few generations of doctors, nothing was as set in stone as the certain knowledge that ulcers – a disease that at any given time afflicted 10% of the adult population – were caused by a combination of stress, lifestyle, and greasy/spicy foods. It was an unchallenged truth, fully embraced by gastroenterologists and psychotherapists the world over.
Ulcers were also the medical gift that kept on giving. An ulcer patient was an annuity for a doctor: it meant years of endoscopes, checkups, stomach surgeries, prescriptions for Zantac and Tagamet, weekly therapy, special stress clinics. An incurable disease that was treatable enough to keep the patient alive.
An incurable disease whose accepted causes had never been empirically tested or proved, just accepted.
Until, that is, somewhere around 1981. when a young intern in a Perth Australia hospital and an older microbiologist made note of the nonexistent cure rate of ulcers, made note of certain ‘peculiarities’ in the ulcer patients they were running across and came up with what should have been an earthshaking theory – ulcers were caused by bacteria.
The two men were Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. When they gave a presentation to an international group of gastroenterologists in Las Vegas in the early ‘80’s, they were laughed out of the room. Then things got ugly. The medical profession labeled them heretics trying to single-handedly destroy a multimillion dollar industry. They were ignored, shunned, ridiculed, marginalized, and worse.
They presented a paper to Australian physicians and were shouted down. They submitted papers to leading medical journals and were rejected, usually with the comment “it’s impossible for bacteria to live in the stomach.”
Meanwhile, the makers of Zantac and Tagamet, the top selling drugs in the world at about $8 billion a year (back in the 80’s when a billion was a billion), were hardly amused and brought massive pressure to bear on the two doctors.
Finally, to prove that the bacteria they had identified could not only survive in the stomach but thrive and cause illness, Barry did the only thing a totally frustrated doctor ethically barred from experimenting on humans could do – he drank a bacterial culture. Within a day he got very ill. Ulcers. He cured himself with antibiotics.
That ‘PR’ stunt was the turning point, it was picked up in the States by, of all things, The Star and National Enquirer, a pretty good indication of how non-mainstream their quest had become, but it had an impact. By the mid-nineties it was finally accepted that bacteria caused almost all ulcers, treatment became routine, millions were cured, thousands were saved, Zantac became an over the counter heartburn medication right next to Rolaids, ulcers went the way of polio and smallpox.
In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology.
So, why am I writing about this on a law blog? Because dogma – ‘that’s the way it is and always will be’ – is just as prevalent in the law as it is everywhere else.
It is particularly prevalent in divorce and with fathers seeking custody. “It’s impossible for dads to get custody,” “The court always favors the mother,” and so much more has been around forever. It didn’t start with Kramer vs. Kramer, but the Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep movie certainly did a lot to propagate it. That movie came out in 1979, by the way.
Here’s the thing – I’m sure that more than a few doctors before Marshall and Warren had the same idea: bacteria caused ulcers. It actually would be surprising if someone who practiced medicine hadn’t seen some proof of it over the years.
The really – really – hard thing would be bringing it up in a room of experts who knew better. Then sticking to it despite all. Warren and Marshall had dozens of opportunities to simply shrug their shoulders and walk away with a “well, the system’s rigged against us, let’s pack it up.” It would certainly have been the easiest thing to do.
I’m here to tell you that ‘a father can’t get custody’ in 2016 is nowhere near the dogma it used to be and certainly nothing like taking on an entire profession, an entire way of thinking.
It does, however, take the ability to not assume anything about ‘the system’, then it takes a willingness to stick with it. Then seemingly amazing things can happen.