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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century

By Morton A. Meyers
15-minute read
Audio available
Happy Accidents by Morton A. Meyers

Happy Accidents (2011) explores the invaluable role that false assumptions, unlikely circumstances, and sheer dumb luck have played in some of medicine’s biggest discoveries. From antibiotics to antidepressants, heart surgery to chemotherapy, some of today’s most important drugs and treatments are the result of serendipity — stumbling across one thing while looking for another. Radiologist Morton A. Meyers reveals some of the incredible true stories of medicine’s luckiest findings.

  • Science nerds interested in medicine and pharmacology
  • History buffs interested in how great minds make big discoveries 
  • Readers who enjoy stories with a good plot twist

Morton A. Meyers is a Professor of Radiology and Medicine, and emeritus Chair of the Department of Radiology at the State University of New York. His own serendipitous discovery of how contrast fluid flows in the abdominal cavity during X-ray imaging provided a crucial new insight into the way cancer metastasizes in the body.

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century

By Morton A. Meyers
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Happy Accidents by Morton A. Meyers
Synopsis

Happy Accidents (2011) explores the invaluable role that false assumptions, unlikely circumstances, and sheer dumb luck have played in some of medicine’s biggest discoveries. From antibiotics to antidepressants, heart surgery to chemotherapy, some of today’s most important drugs and treatments are the result of serendipity — stumbling across one thing while looking for another. Radiologist Morton A. Meyers reveals some of the incredible true stories of medicine’s luckiest findings.

Key idea 1 of 9

Many great medical discoveries are the result of serendipity.

Wilhelm Röntgen didn’t mean to discover X-rays when he was experimenting with cathode ray tubes in 1885. It was only when he noticed a strange and unexpected fluorescent glow in his darkened laboratory that he decided to investigate further — and discovered the electromagnetic rays that led to the invention of one of the most important diagnostic tools in modern medicine. 

Röntgen’s experience wasn’t so unusual — throughout medical history, accidental discoveries have led to major breakthroughs in the way we understand and treat illness. 

In pharmacology especially, it’s not uncommon for researchers to spend years trying to develop a drug for a specific ailment, only to stumble across a substance that does something entirely different.

In 1947, for instance, two allergists at Johns Hopkins Hospital gave a new antihistamine to a young woman to treat a rash of hives she’d developed. When she came back for reexamination several weeks later, she was pleased to report that not only had the rash disappeared, the car sickness she had suffered from all her life had gone as well. 

After larger clinical trials to confirm this side effect, the drug previously conceived as an antihistamine came to market as Dramamine, a treatment against motion sickness that’s now a household name.

Similar stories have resulted in the development of drugs as varied as Prozac, Viagra, and Aspirin, to name just a few, and if any one cause can be attributed to all these discoveries, it’s serendipity – a phenomenon that occurs when a person searching for something ends up finding something else of even greater value. 

So why is no one talking about the role of serendipity in medical research?

Scientists themselves often understate the importance of chance, error, and luck in medical research. Writing papers, they sometimes even change their hypotheses in hindsight to match the unexpected outcomes, making it seem as if they knew what they were doing all along. Only after collecting their awards and prizes do many of them admit to the serendipitous nature of their breakthroughs. 

This is unfortunate, because it paints a false picture of scientific research to medical students, fellow professionals, and the public. Luck is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, in order to turn an unexpected discovery into a useful new medical insight, it still takes a creative mind imbued with reason, intuition, and imagination to seize upon it. 

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