Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

  • Morton A. Meyers
Arcade Publishing, 2007 390 pp., hardcover, $29.95 1559708190 | ISBN: 1-559-70819-0

Happy Accidents is, first and foremost, a book about the nature of discovery. Morton A. Meyers argues that 'happy accidents', serendipity and even outright error have been important driving forces for the advancement of medicine. He illustrates this with numerous cases from modern medical research, ranging from the fortuitous discovery of a novel method of culturing microorganisms to the accidental finding of the hallucinogenic effects of LSD.

Meyers opens the book by describing the role that serendipity has had in scientific discovery. He argues that although scientific breakthroughs frequently arise from coincidence and error, by no means does innovation occur only as a result of sheer luck. To turn an accident into a happy one, the researcher's alertness and sagacity are essential. According to Meyers, the scientific literature does not reflect the true nature of discovery in medicine. Rather, a finding is usually presented as rationally driven. Only in informal speeches or memoirs might researchers admit that accidents and errors played roles in their work.

The main part of the book has four chapters, covering infectious disease, cancer, heart disease and mental illness. The author emphasizes the drama and heroism involved in research, as well as the accidents and mistakes that, in hindsight, turn out to be instrumental for advancement. His stories are usually centered on a particular individual and his (or, occasionally, her) achievements. Some of these accomplishments seem humdrum at first, but nevertheless have had a great impact on medical research. For example, Meyers tells us how Robert Koch “happened to notice” that a potato slice left on a lab bench was covered in spots. Microscopic investigation of the spots revealed colonies of microorganisms, suggesting that pure cultures could be grown on a solid base. Koch came across the appropriate growth medium in a similarly accidental fashion—agar, made from Japanese seaweed, was suggested by the wife of a colleague who was posted in the Dutch East Indies. Koch's technique of growing pure cultures of microorganisms on solid media revolutionized bacteriological research.

Other accidental discoveries appear dramatic right from the start, such as the discovery of the beneficial effects of aspirin on precancerous growths in the colon. In the 1970s, a physician “stumbled upon” evidence of this while treating a woman with an anti-inflammatory drug for an upset stomach. The woman happened to have a rare disease causing tumor growth in her abdomen, and “much to his surprise,” the tumors disappeared after treatment. This finding, Meyers tells us, ultimately “thrust commonplace drugs to the forefront of cancer research.”

The concluding portion of the book draws out noteworthy consequences for science policy and education. If serendipity is crucial for medical advances, then it is essential to create and maintain research environments that foster serendipity. Meyers thus calls for more freedom in medical research, arguing that present institutions, such as the peer review system, the pharmaceutical industry, with its pressure on researchers to develop marketable drugs, and science education are all not conducive to the occurrence of happy accidents. They do not encourage innovation, they value profit over progress and they promulgate the myth of rationally driven science.

Happy Accidents is written in a conversational tone and is intended for a general and scholarly audience. Many scientists will agree with Meyers's main claims. Historians and philosophers of science, however, will not be surprised by the discrepancies Meyers finds between what is going on in the lab and what is reported in scientific publications. Meyers bemoans that there is no body of literature that reveals the factors of chance and serendipity in research. But in philosophy, sociology and history of science, the points he makes have long been discussed. It is correct that early twentieth-century philosophy of science focused on the rational reconstruction of scientific theories. But since then, numerous scholars have in fact examined actual research activity.

Meyers does occasionally refer to Thomas Kuhn's rebuttal of early twentieth-century philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). But a lot more has happened in recent studies of science. For example, having observed scientists at work, sociologists have portrayed laboratory research as opportunistic tinkering and reasoning. Historians and philosophers have shown how experimental systems evolve from the local convergence of technical innovation, institutional collaboration, political and material opportunities, and skill. And historians and cognitive scientists have examined the nature of scientific experiments and scientists' creativity.

In light of these studies, it appears that Meyers misrepresents the role of the scientific paper. It is not—and indeed was never meant to be—an account of 'what really happened' in the lab. Rather, it presents the results of scientific inquiry supported by what scientists consider to be their strongest arguments. The format of the argument is in part prescribed by institutional guidelines for publication and is shaped by the expectations of the intended audience. Historians and sociologists have therefore stressed that it is a mistake to interpret a scientific paper as being a report of actual research activity. So it is not surprising that, in focusing on these research activities, Meyers finds a wealth of evidence to show that research is much less rationally driven, and that accidents and errors are much more prominent, than scientific articles suggest. Nevertheless, if this book can help set right popular myths about science, and if it can motivate debates about policies of grant administration and science education, it will have served an important purpose.