Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Happy Accidents

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D.
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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The word 'serendipity' was coined by Horace Walpole in the 1740s after reading the fable The Three Princes of Serendip (set in the land of Serendip, now known as Sri Lanka). Walpole also coined the misnomer 'malaria' which derives from the Italian mal aria (bad air).

Sulfanilamide was produced as an unwanted byproduct of the German dye industry for years before an accidental discovery showed it to be a very effective antibiotic. The researcher who discovered it in 1936 used it to successfully cure his six year old daughter from a life-threatening infection. The only catch is that he turned her skin a permanent lobster-red color as he didn't know what element of the red dye was the active ingredient! If discovered in time, it is estimated that Sulfinilamide could have saved 750,000 lives in World War I alone. Every American soldier in WWII carried a 1st Aid pouch containing sulfa powder.

Valium, also connected to the German dye industry, was discovered in 1957 when researchers tidying up their work benches, two years after a research program had been virtually suspended, found a compound they hadn't tested before. They sent it for testing assuming that the negative results would complete their work with the particular series of compounds they had been researching, but instead it was found to work very well!

The profitable effects of Viagra were noted when angina patients being treated with an experimental drug to increase the blood flow commented on an interesting and unexpected side effect.

The idea that cancer could be found early by examining cells (cytology) was a revolutionary idea proposed by George Papanicolaou in 1928, who observed the presence of cancer cells in people not known to be sick while investigating the reproductive cycles of humans and animals. The pap smear is named after him.

This article was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the December 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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