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

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Relatively few investigators have spontaneously acknowledged the contribution of chance and accident to their discoveries. Scientific papers in the main do not accurately reflect the way work was actually done. Researchers generally present their observations, data, and conclusions in a dry passive voice that perpetuates the notion that discoveries are the natural outcome of deliberative search. The result, in the words of Peter Medawar, winner of a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in immunology, is to “conceal and misrepresent” the working reality.  Virtually without exception, scientific literature imposes a post facto logic on the sequence of reasoning and discovery. The role of chance would never be suspected from the logically rigorous sequence in which research is reported.

Too much is at risk for scientists early in their careers to admit that chance observations led to their achievements. Only years later, after reputations are solidly made, do they testify to the contributions of such mind-turning factors as unexpected results, fortuitous happenstances, or exceptions to a premise. The truth is aired in award acceptance speeches, autobiographies, or personal interviews. Wilhelm Röntgen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, readily acknowledged the accidental nature of his discovery in a lecture to his local physics society. However, it is typically not until the Nobel Prize acceptance lectures that the laureate will for the first time clearly acknowledge the role of chance, error, or accident — as happened with Charles Richet (immunology, 1913), Alexander Fleming (the first antibiotic, 1945), Baruch Blumberg (the hepatitis B virus, 1976), Rosalyn Yalow (radioimmunoassay, 1977), and Robert Furchgott (the signal molecule nitric oxide, 1998).

To his credit, the accounts of his experiments on nerve conduction by Alan Hodgkin — subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963 — are openly characterized by such phrases as “discovered by accident when trying to test something quite different,” “to our surprise . . . ,” “chance and good fortune,” and “a great piece of luck.” Thomas Starzl, a surgical pioneer in the field of liver transplantation, wrote about his early career in a personal letter to a colleague: “I have a very difficult confession to make. Practically every contribution I ever made in my professional life turned out to be exactly the opposite of my expectations. This means that all my hypotheses turned out to be wrong, and usually spectacularly so. Naturally, I would not admit this to anyone, but an old friend!”

Based upon a series of serendipitous events in his own research, Aser Rothstein observed: “Many of our advances in biology are due to chance, combined with intelligent exploitation . . . It is for this reason that the image of the scientist is not a true one. He comes out as a cold, logical creature when in reality he can fumble around with as much uncertainty as the rest of humanity, buffeted by an unpredictable environment.”

Peter Medawar has asserted that “any scientist who is not a hypocrite will admit the important part that luck plays in scientific discovery.” 37 Writing in 1984, after a distinguished career in immunology with the National Institute for Medical Research in England, J. H. Humphrey stated: “Most of [my experiments] that led to anything novel or interesting arose because of some unexpected or chance observation that I was fortunate in being able to follow up.”38 Humphrey felt obligated to make the point not only in his recollection but eventually in the British Medical Journal, where he wrote rather forcefully: “I am aware from personal experience or from acquaintance with the people concerned how little the original purpose of some important experiments had to do with the discoveries which emerged from them. This is rarely obvious from the published accounts. . . . By the time a paper is published the findings have usually been married with current ideas and made to look as though they were the logical outcome of an original hypothesis.”39 Some observers have euphemistically termed this process “retrospective falsification.” Others have baldly termed it “fraud.”

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.

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