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Serendipity
Fortunate Medical Mishaps

Serendipity
  • Fleming Discoverer of Penicillin (by )
  • The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming 
  • Plos One : Warfarin Anticoagulant Therap... (by )
  • The Life of Joseph Priestly : With Criti... (by )
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 Nobody wants to make a mistake, especially at work, but some mishaps become advantageous. When we’re sick and require antibiotics, we should be thankful for a lucky discovery made by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming.

Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when he left a petri dish of a culture of the bacteria staphylococcus uncovered. When he returned to the lab after a long holiday, he noticed that a mold that developed in the petri dish killed much of the bacteria. In 1929, he introduced his mold by-product, which he called penicillin. 


In most of the great scientific discoveries there has been one part deliberate research and one part luck. (Louis) Pasteur, a man of unusual firmness of purpose who sought the truth with a combination of pure reason and experiment, was sometimes helped by Chance. (p. 123)

Furthermore, he writes:

Fleming put the Petri (it is capitalized in the quote) dish aside. He was to keep it as a precious treasure for the rest of his life. He showed it to one of his colleagues: ‘Take a look at that,’ he said, it’s interesting—the kind of thing I like: it may well turn out to be important. (p. 125)

In 1945, Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for this drug, which cured bacterial infections and saved countless lives.

The discovery of the blood-thinner or anticoagulant was another serendipitous finding. During the 1930s, a Wisconsin farmer approached American biochemist Karl Paul Gerhard Link about a concerning issue he was having with his cattle. After eating sweet clover hay that had mold growing on it, the cows began to bleed internally. 

After examining the cattle’s feed, Link discovered that it contained an anticoagulant substance, which made the blood thin out. He then isolated a specific compound in what we know today as warfarin (derived from WARF—Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation), which could treat people who have blood clots.

In Plos One: Warfarin Anticoagulant Therapy; A Southern Italy Pharmacogenetics-based Dosing Model, Volume 8, Giuseppe Novelli writes: “Warfarin is the most frequently prescribed anticoagulant worldwide.” (p. 1) The World Library Foundation has several medical studies that involve warfarin.

In 1772, preacher and scientist Joseph Priestly discovered nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas.” He discovered that putting iron fillings into nitric acid released the gas, which had anti-panic properties. The recreational drug was used as a mood enhancer until the 1840s when progressive doctors and dentists began experimenting with it as a tranquilizer. 


An account of his discovery of nitrous air, its antiseptic qualities, &c. is given with his usual accuracy in the first volume.” Furthermore, it says, “Several new and valuable discoveries, the result of various, and some of them dangerous experiments, are detailed in the second volume. (p. 63)

By Regina Molaro



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