When you hear the word “drug”, most of us think of the opioid painkillers, the powerful stimulants like Adderall, or the sedatives like Xanax. But these are all synthetic (man-made) drugs. Until the advent of the discovery of marijuana in the 1800’s, most medicines were natural. When people would get sick, they would consume the medicinal compounds found in nature. Today, we call them “traditional medicines” or “herbal medicines”.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a German poet and scientist, reportedly said that “finding requires chance, creativity, and intelligence,” and that “none can do without the other.” So many life-changing discoveries and innovations have occurred by chance or as a consequence of intoxication, which is most likely where luck plays a role.
Medical breakthroughs that happened by chance
Many of these unintentional discoveries have had a major effect on the medical sector and people’s lives today. Imagine a world without antidepressants or reversible birth control methods. We may have finally found such medicines, but they were discovered by mistake and have luckily been around for quite some time.
Scientists in the 1950s eliminated contaminants from progesterone tablets they were studying in order to discover an efficient preventive. However, eliminating the impurities had no effect on the study’s results, which led them to the conclusion that the impurity they were removing was active estrogen. Further study revealed that the combination of the two hormones is the key to a successful prophylactic. In 1957, the FDA authorized the pill, but only as a treatment for severe menstruation problems, not as a contraceptive. The tablet was an immediate success on the market, but following some negative press about its side effects, sales plummeted.
- The First Synthetic Sedative, Chloral Hydrate
Oscar Liebreich, who discovered the sedative effects of the world’s first synthetic hypnotic, is responsible for this unintentional discovery. Liebreich was acting on an erroneous but profitable intuition. Liebreich hypothesized that the chemical would be transformed to chloroform in the body, but instead discovered that it had the capacity to put people to sleep (sedate them). The world’s first sleeping medication was born at this time.
While this isn’t a medication, it is nevertheless a significant medical breakthrough that happened by chance. When Wilson Greatbatch’s technology for recording heartbeats malfunctioned, he developed the first cardiac pacemaker. Greatbatch inadvertently used the incorrect resistor in his cardiac recording equipment, causing it to produce regular electrical pulses. The deception was then refined for two years before being patented in 1960. This gadget continues to save countless lives across the globe.
- The First MOAI Antidepressant, Iproniazid
Iproniazid, the first antidepressant, was characterized as a “psychological energizer” by Discover Magazine. The drug was initially created to treat TB, but researchers discovered that the patients became happy and hyperactive. This was the first antidepressant to be classified as a Monoamine oxidase Inhibitor (MAOI). MAOIs are essential for blocking depression-related neurotransmitters, providing for some alleviation from the illness. Several antidepressant categories were developed as a result.
Albert Hofmann discovered lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) after inadvertently getting some on his finger and seeing “an endless stream of wonderful images, amazing forms with a kaleidoscope dance of colors.” Hoffman decided to take a higher dosage three days after the event before riding home, and that’s when the world melted away and LSD was born. This occurred on April 19, 1943, and has since been called “Bicycle Day.”
Penicillin was discovered thanks to a particle of dust. One of Alexander Fleming’s Petri plates became infected when he was researching influenza. One particle of dust landed in one of the Petri plates, which contains staphylococcus. Flemming discovered the antibiotic penicillin when he examined the petri plate and discovered a bacteria-free zone. Fleming and two Oxford scientists who helped in developing the method of mass manufacturing of penicillin shared the Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery of the world’s first antibiotics.
Valium was created by Leo Sternback, a Polish immigrant residing in America, using waste chemical compounds from his dye-making efforts. Leo was a pharmaceutical chemist who “followed a hunch about certain chemicals he had researched” that might “interact positively with the human neurological system,” according to the Los Angeles Times. This medication is used to treat alcohol withdrawal, anxiety, seizures, muscular spasms, and nerve pain.
Although this is debatable, a report published on NCBI characterizes the discovery of viagra as a “serendipitous tale” that is “one of the most interesting drug development stories of our time.” They stated that erectile dysfunction, which was previously thought to be “a psychological problem or an unavoidable aspect of aging,” is now curable with sildenafil citrate (viagra). When researchers were searching for a cure for chest discomfort, they came upon Viagra by mistake. The drug was shown to be more successful in inducing erections in males during scientific studies on its effectiveness for chest discomfort.
Isn’t it interesting how life works? Researchers are looking for something but end up discovering something else, some of which turns out to be some of the most significant medical discoveries ever. Millions of lives have been spared because to antibiotics like penicillin, but you’ll never know how much more there is to learn until you try. Let us hope that as the medical profession advances, such fortuitous, unintentional discoveries continue to enhance the quality of our lives for future generations.
Chane Leigh, nicknamed The Bud Fairy, is a cannabis advocate and enthusiast from South Africa with a fiery personality and a desire to travel. She enjoys educating others and challenging social conventions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What medicines were discovered by accident?
The first medicine was discovered by accident in the late 1800s.
Which of the following is known as an accidental discovery?
A discovery is an accidental finding.