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Book Recommendations

Serendipity in Medicine

I came across this book the other day, and bought it on sight: Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. From what I’ve read of it so far, it’s a fine one-stop-reference for all sorts of medical discoveries where fortune favored the prepared mind (as Pasteur put it). There are drug discovery tales, surgical procedures, medical devices, and more.
Even the stories I thought I knew well turn out to have more details. Albert Hoffman’s famous discovery of LSD, for example – what I hadn’t known was that some of his colleagues didn’t believe him when he said he’d taken only 0.25mg of a compound and hallucinated violently for hours. (From what we now know, that was actually a heck of a dose!) So Ernst Rothlin, Sandoz’s head of pharmacology, and two others tried it themselves. “Rothlin believed it then”, Hoffman noted. Those days will never come again!

9 comments on “Serendipity in Medicine”

  1. JB says:

    We just had one of those yesterday, obviously don’t know how useful it will be yet- we may have found a link between two projects because a guy walking by a conference room saw hits up on the screen for another project and realized they were similar to his compounds. (No, they’re not just promiscuous, there’s a possible common target between the projects.) Good thing he went to lunch when he did.

  2. p says:

    Beginning a long, proud tradition of whacked out executives in pharma.

  3. anchor says:

    Speaking of Serendipity, in late eighties I had a privilege of working for Hoffman-La Roche and also knowing Dr. Leo Sternbach (the Librium, Valium fame). He was a very genuine and unassuming scientist. My recollection, when I spoke to him about his famous “accidental” discovery was that he was cleaning out his lab and decided to submit some sample for CNS program. The rest, as they say is history. A phenomenal finding at that time and opened up an area of benzodiazepine drug molecules and receptors. This was at a time when the rational drug discovery was still at a embryonic stage! For any drug company serendipity needs to happen once in a while.

  4. retread says:

    There are tons more in medicine. For an example (the Rx of myasthenia gravis) see
    Please don’t snicker at the pharmacology in the post, it is meant to be an introduction, not a learned tome

  5. Chrispy says:

    I’ve read the book and it’s pretty good. The story about the discovery of warfarin is especially good — someone tried to kill themselves with rat poison, lived, and a drug was born…

  6. Eric Jablow says:

    There’s the discovery that nitrogen mustard could suppress leukemias and lymphomas temporarily. A ship carrying the agent during World War II was bombed, the agent killed people in the area, and autopsies showed that the victims had suffered myeloid and lymphoid suppression.

  7. Interested Layman says:
    looks like a more current Hoffmann-like example related to the discovery of the infamous peptidic lifestyle drug ‘Melanotan II’.
    All praise to the foolhardy…

  8. drug_hunter says:

    Great book. I’ve used quite a few of these stories in lectures. Everyone who thinks that drug discovery is always rational, or that the scientific method is a straightforward linear process, should read this book.
    And regarding comment #1 from JB – That’s a great example of how serendipitous the entire process can be. I hope the observation bears fruit!

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