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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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.

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