Happy Accidents

Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs – When Scientists Find What They’re NOT Looking For
by Morton A. Meyers, M.D.

Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs – When Scientists Find What They’re NOT Looking For by Morton A. Meyers, M.D. is exactly what the title touts: many medical breakthroughs are a matter of being at the right place at the right time or as Louis Pasteur is quoted to have said, “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.”

The book is chock full of stories of accidental discovery where scientists were looking for one thing and found another or were just poking around to see what shook out of the trees. The tales of discovery of the usual ones familiar to those of us Medical Historians: the discovery of penicillin, the discovery of Salvarsan 606 and others. I was amused to note that Dr Meyers didn’t mention that Viagara’s serendipitous discovery came about because during the test as a hypertension medication, male patients refused to hand over the unused samples. (It’s possible that this is an apocryphal story, still it’s a good one).

As long as Dr Meyer was relating the stories of discovery and serendipity, this was a decent book to read. In fact, despite my vast knowledge of medical history, even I was surprised by the events of Bari during World War II where an attack on the port caused mustard gas to be released. Subsequent treatment of the attack victims showed that mustard gas had depressed the body’s white cell, which led to the discovery of chemotherapy agents against leukemia and lymphoma.

However, when Dr Meyer became more contemplative, the book tended to go into the weeds. In fact, as I plodded through his introduction, I had to remind myself that this was a second read and if I hadn’t liked the book the first time, it would have been sitting on my shelf. In essence, I’d suggest skipping the introduction and the conclusion and just confine yourself to the meat. I normally don’t review the Notes section of a book, but in this case, there are some good background Notes. There are times I wish that the footnotes were placed at the bottom of the page so I didn’t have to hop back and forth between them.

I give this book a solid 3.5 though Goodreads doesn’t allow for half stars; there, I gave the book 4 stars there. It’s a good read, but stick to the tales of discovery, not the author’s pontifications.

Unlike previous books of late, this was a hardcover from my personal library as I am continuing my quest of re-reading books I’d read years ago so I can write reviews. Didn’t realize I was so close to finishing this book, otherwise, I would have picked out a book for the next read. So if you want to know what I’m currently reading, check out my Goodreads.

(Reviewed 09 March, 2014)

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