Accidental Medical Discoveries

Although medicine is a field that requires meticulous accuracy and precision, some of the biggest and most important breakthroughs in medical history have been the result of accidents. The scientists listed in this article stumbled upon the results of their experiments by chance - but their accidental discoveries have paved the way for some of the most effective medical treatments used to this day.

1. Alexander Fleming and penicillin

We'll begin our list of accidental medical breakthroughs with the story of Alexander Fleming, who is credited with discovering penicillin in 1928. As the story goes, Dr. Fleming left several petri dishes in his lab before departing for a trip to his country home. Upon his return, he discovered mold growing in one of the petri dishes - not all that surprising given his long absence during which the petri dishes were not cleaned. What was surprising was that the areas around the mold spores were completely free of bacteria. Though Dr. Fleming is considered the official father of antibiotics, it should be noted that penicillin was not marketable as a commercial antibiotic until 1935 when two researchers from Oxford were able to separate and purify the penicillin compounds from the mold.

2. Karl Paul Link and blood thinners

In 1933 a Wisconsin farmer named Ed Carlson became very concerned when he noticed his cattle beginning to aggressively hemorrhage for no discernible reason. He suspected the cause to be linked to the cattle's feed of rancid clover hay, and visited a biochemist named Karl Paul Link. Dr. Link was able to confirm that the hay used as cattle feed was contaminated with an anticoagulant agent named warfarin, sold commercially as rat poison. Upon examining warfarin, Dr. Link was able to isolate the compound within the agent that could be used as a blood thinner to treat blood clots in patients. To this day, this compound is used in blood thinners to treat patients around the world.

3. Wilson Greatbatch and the commercial pacemaker

Dr. Greatbatch was not actually the inventor of the pacemaker - this honor is reserved for Rune Elmqvist and Åke Senning - but he greatly improved upon their work by accident. Greatbatch intended to create an internal heart rhythm but by mistake installed the wrong part in the prototype of his design. Greatbatch fitted his prototype with a resistor that produced intermittent electrical pulses, rather than recording heartbeats as the inventor had originally planned. After 2 years of fine-tuning, the implantable pacemaker was commercially viable and his patent was approved in 1960, making it the first implantable pacemaker to be used in humans to extend their lifespans by keeping their hearts beating.

4. Paul Grant and Rogaine

The patent for Rogaine officially belongs to Upjohn, a company under the parent corporation Pfizer, that had developed a hypertension relieving drug named minoxidil. About a quarter of a century ago Paul Grant came upon an article about a woman unexpectedly growing hair in strange places on her body and upon investigating the case, he learned that she was being treated for high blood pressure with minoxidil. He suspected that the drug could be used to relieve male pattern baldness and decided to test his theory by dabbing the treatment onto parts of his arm. After several months, Grant noticed hair growth on the patches of skin he had been treating with the drug and reported his discovery to Upjohn. But Grant had tested the drug without the company's consent, who filed a patent and reported him to the FDA for unauthorized tests on human subjects. Eventually Grant was able to settle with the company for royalties, but he is not officially listed as a creator of Rogaine.

5. Pfizer and Viagra

BBC has reported that Viagra is the fastest selling drug of all time, but the little blue pill was actually created with an entirely different purpose in mind. Pfizer originally was testing Viagra as a treatment for angina. After observing the disappointing results from clinical trials, researchers noticed a consistent side effect of the drug: volunteers had an increased number of erections. The pharmaceutical giant quickly realized they had developed a product that could be used to treat erectile disfunction, and Viagra is now one of the most-prescribed drugs in the world.

6. William Roentgen and X-Rays

1895 marked the year that physicist William Roentgen discovered x-rays through his experiments with electromagnets. The Bavarian physicist was examining the paths of electrical waves by shooting currents through a partially evacuated test tube that was covered with black paper. The room he was in was completely dark, but Roentgen noticed that the glow emitted from the glass tube was illuminating a separate screen in the room that had been treated with heavy chemicals. The researcher soon realized that the electromagnetic waves could be used to penetrate certain objects and illuminate others, and that using a photographic plate instead of a regular screen could turn these discoveries into pictures. This accidental breakthrough was remarkable because it made internal structures within the body visible without the need for invasive surgical operations.

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