Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

By Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Introduction
Serendipity, Science’s Well-Guarded Secret

I exist
But only in you if you want me . . .
All things are meaningless accidents, works of chance
unless your marveling gaze,
as it probes, connects and orders,
makes them divine . . .

— Wilhelm Willms, “God Speaks”1

Contemplating the genesis of the great medical breakthroughs of the last century, most people picture brilliant, well-trained scientists diligently pursuing a predetermined goal — laboriously experimenting with first this substance and then that substance, progressing step by step to a “Eureka!” moment when the sought-after cure is at last found. There in the mind’s eye is Marie Curie stirring a vat of pitchblende over many years to recover minute amounts of radium, or Paul Ehrlich testing one arsenical compound after another until he finds Salvarsan, the “magic bullet” against syphilis, on his 606th attempt. In the contemporary setting, one looks to what might be called Big Science. Surely, we imagine, in the halls of ivy-draped universities and the gleaming labs of giant pharmaceutical companies, teams of researchers in smart white coats are working in harmony to cure cancer, banish the common cold, or otherwise produce the Next Big Thing in medicine.

For its own reasons, the medical establishment is happy to perpetuate these largely false images. By tradition and protocol, it presents science as a set of facts and strong beliefs that, like the Ten Commandments, have been set in stone by a distant all-knowing authority and, if followed, will lead inevitably through a linear process to the desired results. Furthermore, it portrays the history of scientific advances as a sequence of events that have led to more-or-less direct progress.

The reality is different. Progress has resulted only after many false starts and despite widespread misconceptions held over long periods of time. A large number of significant discoveries in medicine arose, and entirely new domains of knowledge and practice were opened up, not as a result of painstaking experimentation but rather from chance and even outright error. This is true for many of the common drugs and procedures that we rely on today, notably many antibiotics, anesthetics, chemotherapy drugs, anticoagulant drugs, and antidepressants.

Consider the following examples, all typical of how things happen in medical research:

  • At the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1947, two allergists gave a new antihistamine, Dramamine, to a patient suffering from hives. Some weeks later, she was pleased to report to her doctors that the car sickness she had suffered from all her life had disappeared. Drs. Leslie Gay and Paul Carliner tested the drug on other patients who suffered from travel sickness, and all were completely freed of discomfort, provided the drug was taken just before beginning the potentially nauseating journey. A large-scale clinical trial involving a troopship with more than 1,300 soldiers crossing the rough North Atlantic for twelve days (Operation Seasickness) decidedly proved the drug’s value in preventing and relieving motion sickness. Dramamine is still used today, available over the counter.
  • A professor of biological chemistry and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was studying a particular blood protein when he found another protein contaminating his sample. Rather than simply discarding it, Dr. Peter Agre realized that he had stumbled upon the structure of the channel — folded-up proteins piercing cell walls — that can control the flow of water molecules into and out of living cells. For making this basic discovery, which, he said, “really fell into our laps,” he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003.

    Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...
  • Book Jacket: Toms River
    Toms River
    by Dan Fagin
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction

    In Toms River, investigative journalist Dan Fagin ...
  • Book Jacket: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    by Gabrielle Zevin
    I feel like Gabrielle Zevin wrote this wonderful book, about a lonely New England bookstore owner ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

Choose an author as you would a friend.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.