The concept of flukes occurring in medicine can be unnerving, but in a moment you’ll read about how 6 incredible medical revelations were stumbled upon in somewhat accidental ways.
1. LSD and the Discovery of the Polymerase Chain Reaction
Dr. Kary Mullis is a Nobel-prize winning chemist with a wide variety of controversial views. Whatever you may think about him and his personal beliefs, he has had a profound effect on the world through his co-discovery of the polymerase chain reaction which allows us to amplify specific DNA sequences and is a quintessential part of most biochemical laboratories today. Interestingly enough Dr. Mullis describes a psychedelic experience with LSD which helped him discover what would become the polymerase chain reaction. In BBC’s Psychadelic Science documentary Dr. Mullis said: “What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
2. Smallpox Vaccination and the Discovery of Vaccination
It’s 18th century Europe and the idea of vaccinating against one deadly virus by using a another simply doesn’t exist, but in 1796 British surgeon Edward Jenner is told by a milkmaid that people who are falling victim to the mild cowpox disease never seem to become infected with the lethal smallpox scourge.
Jenner boldly tests this by taking open cowpox sore samples from another dairy maid and in turn purposefully infects a child by the name of James Phipps with the cowpox. The boy showed mild signs of the cowpox disease and healed but was again injected months later, this time with smallpox. Our little James remained smallpox free and thus the concept of the modern vaccine was born!
Another Nobel Prize was graciously shared between Frederick G. Banting (a young Canadian doctor) and Professor John J.R Macleod not only for their use of insulin against diabetes but their isolation of it as well.
A couple of German physicians in 1889 extracted the pancreas of a healthy dog hoping to study its role in digestion while unknowingly creating within the dog a diabetic condition. They only realized what had occurred when the dog urinated and flies began to swarm the waste which was filled with excreted sugar. This alerted them to the connection between the pancreas, diabetes, and the fact that a substance must exist which controls usage of sugar in the body. Unfortunately for them, Canadians beat them to the discovery of that prized substance named Insulin.
4. Pap Smear
How could this possibly be an accident, you ask?
In 1923 Dr. George Nicholas Papanicolaou took on a study of his own with the hope of witnessing cellular changes over the course of a menstrual cycle. Much to his surprise, upon examining a slide made from a smear of a patient’s vaginal fluid, he discovered much more: that abnormal cancer cells could be actually be plainly observed under a simple microscope. This in turn resulted in the Pap Smear, a simple test which has now saved millions of women from cervical cancer.
While conducting bizarre experiments on dogs exposing them to sea anemone poison, French physiologist Charles Robert Richet noticed that after a few days some dogs died from their allergic symptoms while some survived their reactions and recovered. After a few weeks when he tested the healed dogs with a smaller dose of the same poison, the same deadly symptoms occurred but within a few short minutes, not days.
From this Richet proved that the state of anaphylaxis existed: instead of developing immunity to an allergen through exposure (prophylaxis), the opposite reaction can occur whittling away a subject’s immunity.
And finally, we mustn’t forget the monumental discovery of Dr. Alexander Fleming. While carrying out research on the flu in 1928 one of his petri dish cultures grew mouldy, but instead of discarding the polluted dish, he investigated it more closely. The area surrounding the mould was free of the staphylococcus bacteria he had been studying which demonstrated that the mould was lethal to it.
He grouped this substance into the Penicillium genus which was his very own random discovery of a non-toxic antibiotic which is now used to kill many infection causing bacteria in animals and humans today. A Nobel Prize for another nobel fluke accepted in 1945 for this revelatory discovery!