It’s remarkable to track the advances and discoveries being made every day in the field of medicine. And even more remarkable is when these discoveries happen on accident. In fact, some of the most frequently used medical treatments and practices of today spawned from accidental discoveries. So which ones, exactly? Read on to learn about 5 groundbreaking examples of accidental medical discoveries.
5. Nitrous Oxide
Did you know that “laughing gas” used to be used as a mood enhancer at classy parties and at travelling carnivals in the first half of the nineteenth century? Joseph Priestley was the man who first discovered the gas in 1772, and in 1798 Humphry Davy discovered its physiological effects. But it wasn’t until the 1840s that doctors and dentists began experimenting with the gas as an anaesthetic.
Warfarin’s key role as a blood thinner was discovered in 1933 when a Wisconsin farmer approached biochemist Karl Paul Link about an unexpected amount of hemorrhaging in his cattle. It turns out that the cattle’s feed contained warfarin, an anticoagulant. Link was eventually able to isolate a compound in warfarin that to this day is used to treat patients with blood clots.
3. The Pacemaker
This is more of an accidental medical invention than a discovery. Wilson Greatbatch was seeking to create an internal heart rhythm recording device before he ended up with the world’s first implantable pacemaker. In developing the prototype for his heart rhythm recording device, Greatbatch accidentally mis-assembled it, which resulted in its giving off a rhythmic electrical pulse. Greatbatch realized this could be used as a pacemaker—only this kind of a pacemaker was much smaller and did not involve shocking patients, as was characteristic of the pacemakers of his day. Implantable pacemakers are still frequently used today to help maintain normal heart rhythms in patients.
The discovery of radioactivity began with an experiment by French scientist Antoine Henri Becquerel in 1896. The experiment involved a uranium-bearing crystal and a photographic plate. After exposing the crystal to sunlight, Becquerel was able to produce an image on the plate. But before Becquerel could continue with the experiment, he had to store the crystal and photographic plate away in a drawer due to cloudy weather. Upon removing the crystal and plate after the sunlight had returned, Becquerel once again found a strong image on the plate. He didn’t delve into this strange phenomenon much further, but soon Pierre and Marie Curie took interest. The Curies continued to study the spontaneous emissions coming from uranium-containing ore, and when they found were two new radioactive elements: polonium and radium. This initial research into the realm of radioactivity is what allows healthcare professionals of today to create diagnostic x-rays and perform radiotherapy on cancer patients.
Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming was simply examining mold growth on an accidentally contaminated staphylococci culture plate in 1928 when he noticed something peculiar—the mold was actually preventing staphylococci from growing. This observation marked the discovery of the world’s first antibiotic. Today, penicillin is the most widely used antibiotic around the world.
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