Accidental Discoveries in History: HEALTH / MEDICINE

Pill bottle spilledThose individuals who have “Eureka” moments are those who are prepared for that moment of discovery:  They begin with an inquisitive mind, which nurtures creative thinking, which is supported by collecting background information, educating themselves; to that they add the right tools, and an open mind that looks at the possibilities in what others might see as “mistakes.”  Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of health and medical discoveries, with others to follow over the next few posts:

 “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Thomas A. Edison


Who:  Alexander Fleming, Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1928

Why: He didn’t clean up his work station before leaving one day in 1928.  When he returned he noticed a strange fungus on some of his cultures, but it wasn’t growing near certain cultures.  His “bad science” mistake led to the discovery of the first, most important, and still-widely used antibiotic.


Who:  Wilson Greatbatch, American Engineer and absent-minded professor.

When: 1960

Why:  In 1958 he was trying to make a circuit to help record heartbeat sounds.  When he reached into a box of resistors he accidentally pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000 ohm resistor.  It pulsed to a familiar rhythm – a perfect heartbeat.  Actually, the first pacemakers go back as far as 1899; but Greatbatch’s invention was the first successfully implanted cardiac pacemaker.


Who: William Perkin, 18-year-old English chemist, eventually Sir William Perkin.

When: 1856

Why: He was trying to cure malaria, attempting to produce artificial quinine; his experiment produced a murky blob; but the more he looked at it, he realised the beautiful possibilities… he’d instead made the first-ever synthetic dye.  He’d inadvertently become the poster boy for money-generating science, making it interesting for the curious-minded; he’s known as the founder of science-based industry.  One of those curious minds just happened to be a German bacteriologist named Paul Ehrlich, who used that murky blog, now known as mauveine, to pioneer chemotherapy and immunology.


Who: Nicholas Terrett and Peter Ellis (the names on the patent); more generally, a group of pharmaceutical chemists working at Pfizer’s Sandwich, Kent, research facility in England.

When: 1996

Why: Originally attempting to develop a drug to treat Angina Pectoris – chest pains – they failed in their primary aim, but its side effects were startling, and now famous.


Who: Good question.  It seems to have developed independently on several occasions, from the 12th century onwards.  Laughing gas was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestly, English scientist.

When: Good Question.

Why: In the 1800s, inhaling either nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or ether was considered a form of recreation; “ether frolics”, or “laughing parties” were popular, and several scientists, doctors and dentists noticed that people in such an affected state didn’t feel any pain, even when they injured themselves in the process.  Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells observed such events (and probably took part in them too), and they began using the compounds during their dental and medical procedures.


Who: Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist

When: 1895

Why: In a series of coincidental observations while experimenting with what Röntgen temporarily called “X-rays”, using the mathematical designation for an unknown factor, he began to discover materials that both stopped, and allowed penetration of, these rays.  At one point the material was a piece of lead, and the first radiographic image was made; but at that point he decided to continue his experiments in secret in case he was wrong; he didn’t want to risk his professional reputation on reports of skeleton photography.  Even though the term X-ray is used in English, in German they are called “Röntgenbilder”, or Röntgen-images.


Who: Dr. Albert Hofmann, Swiss Chemist, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland

When: 1938 (first synthesized); 1943 (discovered for its hallucination-inducing properties)

Why: As part of a large research project for finding useful ergot alkaloid derivatives.  Hofmann was re-synthesizing LSD-25 for a study, and took 0.25 milligrams, but became dizzy and had to stop working.  He asked his lab assistant to escort him home; they had to go by bike, and when he got home he lay down, sinking into a pleasant “intoxicated like condition” with an extremely vivid dreamlike stream of images (after an attack of paranoid anxiety that left him thinking he was going insane).  It lasted about 2 hours, and then faded. 19 April, 1943, is now known as Bicycle Day, celebrated as the birthday of LSD.


Who: Dr. Alan Scott, and Edward Schantz

When: late 1960s

Why:  Using small doses of the most acutely toxic substance known, Botulinum toxin (as one does), they applied it to treat “crossed eyes” eyelid spasms and other eye-muscle disorders; a noticeable side-effect was that wrinkles disappeared, as the muscles beneath the skin were paralyzed.  Canadian husband and wife ophthalmologist and dermatologist physicians, JD and JA Carruthers, were the first to publish a study on BTX-A for the treatment of frown lines in 1992.  The result?  Expressionless faces that become distorted and deformed with time, thanks to Botox addiction. I think the inventors of this “treatment” should be locked away in padded cells, personally.

Smallpox Vaccination

Who: Edward Jenner, a British scientist and surgeon

When: 1796

Why:  Jenner had a brainstorm that ultimately led to the development of the first vaccine: A young milkmaid had told him how people who contracted cowpox, a harmless disease easily picked up during contact with cows, never got smallpox, a deadly scourge.  With this in mind Jenner took samples from the open cowpox sores on the hands of a young dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with the secretion he had extracted from Nelmes’ sores.  The boy developed a slight fever and a few sores but remained for the most part unscathed. A few months later Jenner gave the boy another injection, this one containing smallpox. James failed to develop the disease and the idea behind the modern vaccine was born.


Who: Canadian doctor Frederick Banting and Professor John MacLeod of the University of Toronto; Nobel Prize winners of 1923.

When: 1923

Why: In 1889 two German
physicians, Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski, removed the pancreas from a healthy dog in order to study the role of the pancreas in digestion. Several days after the dog’s pancreas was removed, the doctors happened to notice a swarm of flies feeding on a puddle of the dog’s urine. On testing the urine, the doctors realized that the dog was secreting sugar in its urine, a sign of diabetes. Because the dog had been healthy prior to the surgery, the doctors knew that they had created its diabetic condition by removing its pancreas and thus understood for the first time the relationship between the pancreas and diabetes.  After further testing they concluded that a healthy pancreas must secrete a substance that controls the metabolism of sugar in the body. Though other scientists attempted to identify the substance released by the pancreas, it was Banting and MacLeod who discovered that the mysterious substance was insulin.

Pap smear

Who: Dr. George Nicholas Papanicolaou

When: 1923

Why: In 1923 he was studying the vaginal fluid in women to observe cellular changes over the course of a menstrual cycle; one of his subjects just happened to have uterine cancer, and when he discovered the abnormal cells, plainly seen under the microscope, he quickly realized that doctors could administer a simple test to gather a sample of vaginal fluid and test it for early signs of uterine and other cancers.



Filed under Articles, History, Lists, Quotes, Research

3 responses to “Accidental Discoveries in History: HEALTH / MEDICINE

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