Alexander Fleming & 5 Other Accidental Medical Discoveries

For the 85th anniversary of Alexander Fleming's monumental albeit accidental discovery of penicillin, here's a list of some other very lucky souls and their accidental medical discoveries.
Publish date:
Alexander Fleming in his laboratory. (Photo: Davies/Getty Images)

Alexander Fleming in his laboratory. (Photo: Davies/Getty Images)

After a much-needed vacation, most of us return to our workplace to discover nothing more exciting than perhaps a new instant coffee flavor in the kitchen or a new coat of paint on the walls. But 85 years ago this past Saturday (September 28th), Alexander Fleming stumbled upon a wonder drug that would advance mankind forever.

The story goes that upon returning from a trip to his country home, Fleming was complaining to his former lab assistant about the added work he got stuck with after the aid had been transferred away. To make his point, he sorted through a large stack of petri dishes that had accumulated before embarking on his trip, which were presently sitting in a tray of Lysol. The Lysol should have killed the existing bacteria Fleming had been experimenting with. Except that, because of the overflow of dishes, not all them had been touched by the cleaner. Yet strangely, something else had eradicated the microorganisms―a mold.

Intrigued, Fleming experimented with this particular mold until he was able to determine what compound it used to obliterate the bacterium strain. He named the active agent penicillin.

He published his results in a paper but its world-shaking importance would not be of consequence until years later. That's when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain discovered how to mass produce the antibiotic, which helped immensely during the wartime effort. Though all three men would be later recognized by the scientific community with a Nobel Prize in Medicine, Fleming is credited with its splendidly opportune discovery.

For the 85th anniversary of his monumental happy accident, here's a list of some other very lucky souls and their accidental discoveries.

1. KARL PAUL LINK - Warfarin, A Blood Thinner

Tragedy is never a good starting place even if something positive ultimately comes of it. In the case of warfarin, an anticoagulant that was later used as a medical blood thinner, it took the bloody and violent death of countless cows to discover it.

In 1933 Ed Carlson, a Wisconsin man, was as distraught as a farmer can be when his cattle began to hemorrhage violently and unexpectedly. Not knowing what to do, he visited biochemist Karl Paul Link at his lab. Carlson had a sneaking suspicion that his feed, consisting of sweet clover hay and which was now rancid, was to blame. Link proved him right as he discovered an anticoagulant in the hay. It was commercially named warfarin and was initially sold as an effective rat poison.

Upon further research, Link isolated a compound in warfarin that could be used as a blood thinner to treat patients with blood clots. It's still used to this day.

Watch Fleming's mini bio:

2. JOSEPH PRIESTLEY - Nitrous Oxide

Before it was an anesthetic, nitrous oxide was essentially the world's best party trick. Up until 1863, when it first became an established tranquilizer, the gas was used in upscale parties and cross-country sideshows as a "mood enhancer." It is known as laughing gas, after all.

Joseph Priestley was the bright mind who discovered the antipanic agent. Not that giving the world a potential anesthetic was all that impressive to a man who also discovered oxygen in its gaseous form. To obtain laughing gas, Priestley stuck iron fillings into nitric acid, which produced the tingling, numb effect when inhaled, which we know so well. From there, dentists and doctors began to experiment with it as a medical tool, fighting the preconception that it was simply a recreational drug.

3. WILSON GREATBATCH - The Implantable Pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch didn't invent the implantable pacemaker, Rune Elmqvist and Åke Senning are reserved that honor, but he improved upon their design to great lengths. Elmqvist and Senning's first implanted model only lasted three hours while Greatbatch's first extended its wearer's life by 18 months. This made the device commercially viable.

Though Greatbatch was a natural inventor, with more than 150 patents to his name by the time of his death, he invented his pacemaker by accident. A hardware mix up, while building a device to record heart sounds with, put him on his path to discovery. After noticing that the contraption was giving off a rhythmic, heartbeat-like pulse, Greatbatch spent the next two years fine-tuning it. In 1960, his patented device was approved for wide human use, which allowed for hearts around the world to beat for a little while longer.



By most accounts, Guinter Kahn and Paul Grant aren't officially credited for the discovery of Rogaine. But, then again, theirs isn't your standard tale of a medical breakthrough.

More than 25 years ago the two read of a strange case that involved a woman growing abundant hair in places you wouldn't expect. At the time, she was taking the blood pressure drug minoxidil, which was developed by the Upjohn company. Kahn and Grant thought that the hypertension reliever could ultimately be used as a cure for baldness. Without Upjohn's consent, and without any institutional oversight, they developed their own solution as a way to test out their theory: use it on themselves. After several months, Grant noticed hair growth on the part of his arm he had been dabbing with the treatment.

Enthused, they approached Upjohn with the news only to have a patent for Rogaine filed under their noses and be reported to the FDA for unauthorized tests on human subjects by the company. They would eventually settle with the corporation for royalties, but they are in effect not credited as Rogaine's creators.

Image Title2

5. ERIC JACOBSEN & JENS HALD - Antabuse (Alcohol Treatment Medicine)

Before there was antabuse, not many effective treatments existed to treat alcohol abuse. In 1951 that changed when the FDA approved it as a medicine to help combat alcoholism. This, after it was discovered by two Danish researchers who had their own bout with alcohol's ill effects, except in a much different way.

While at the Royal Danish School of Pharmacy, schoolmates Eric Jacobsen and Jens Hald were experimenting with disulfiram as a way to deal with parasitic stomach infections. As was standard practice, they took some of the compound themselves to test out their work.

That night, after just one drink at a friend's party, the two fell gravely ill. As trained researchers, they figured that the disulfiram had not mixed well with their drinks. Further findings showed that the compound, also known as antabuse, prevents the liver from processing alcohol. Since the body reacts so violently to alcohol in antabuse's presence, they concluded that it could be used as a way to curb the drinking of alcoholic patients.