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Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs Hardcover – March 9, 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Meyers, professor emeritus of radiology and internal medicine at SUNY–Stony Brook, has a simple message: the most significant breakthroughs in medical research usually came about when people were looking for something else entirely. Lithium's effect on bipolar disorder, for example, was discovered because a scientist was taking advantage of its solubility to run toxicity tests on patients. Likewise, Viagra was developed during experiments on medications designed to treat angina. Meyers has dozens of stories like this, in the areas of antibiotics, cancer treatments, cardiovascular therapy and antidepressants. The anecdotes are lively and filled with miniportraits of important doctors like Paul Ehrlich (who pioneered the use of chemistry to develop medical treatments) and Arthur Voorhees (who stumbled onto the treatment for abdominal aortic aneurysms), but some chapters feel forcefully wedged in. The role of accident in creating the thalidomide molecule is glossed in one sentence, and too little information is given about contemporary research into the therapeutic use of LSD to draw any meaningful conclusions (although it's a good excuse to revisit the story of Albert Hofmann's bicycle ride). But it will be hard to argue with Meyers's criticism of a rigid scientific culture that discourages experimenters from keeping an eye out for the unexpected. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

To radiologist and internist Meyers, the phrase creative scientific research has become an oxymoron in today's culture of research grants, peer review boards, pharmaceutical companies, overly regimented education, and scientific journals. Rebuffing all that, he details dozens of medicines currently saving millions of lives that are the results of serendipity, which he defines as "chance plus judgment"--medicines discovered while researchers were looking in quite another, often the opposite, direction. To be serendipitous, he says, a chance discovery must be accompanied by the researcher's "ability to recognize an important anomaly or to draw analogies that are not obvious." Creativity is key. In interviews with several Nobel laureates, many readily admit applying so-called post facto logic to the sequence of their reasoning when they make their presentations because, Meyers notes, getting to a new idea is not a linear process. Meyers' accounts of such happy accidents as the discoveries of the lifesaving anticoagulant Coumadin, the manic-depression therapeutic lithium, and others is a significant brief on creativity's critical role in medical research. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing; 1 edition (March 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1559708190
  • ISBN-13: 978-1559708197
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #857,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Let me preface my remarks by mentioning that I am a practicing radiologist and I also serve as Editor in Chief for the American Journal of Roentgenology (AJR), a scholarly, scientific journal that has been in existence for more than 100 years.

In 1995, an article titled "Science, Creativity, and Serendipity" by Morton A. Meyers was published in the AJR [1]. This was the Glen W. Hartman Lecture of the Society of Gastrointestinal Radiologists of that year. The AJR's Editor at that time, Robert Berk, believed it to be one of the most outstanding papers published during his tenure and commented that "Residents will be fortunate to have this information at the beginning of their careers" (M. A. Meyers, personal communication). Fortunately for us, Dr. Meyers has maintained a continuing interest in the role of serendipity as it applies to major medical breakthroughs, and he published a book on this very topic in March 2007, titled "Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs--When Scientists Find What They're NOT Looking For" [2].

It was my good fortune recently to pick up Dr. Meyers' book and casually begin to leaf through it. To my astonishment, almost everything important in medicine that has developed over the past two centuries came about, to a large extent, through pure serendipity. The book is divided into four parts. Let me list them here in order so you can appreciate Dr.
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Format: Hardcover
When I first started this book, I considered it nothing more than a bunch of fun anecdotes about medical discoveries. About two-thirds of the way through I realized that Meyers is making a serious point about how science really progresses. Huge projects are much less likely to make breathrough discoveries than scientists piddling around with whatever interests them. Some relatively minor changes in the way science is funded and organized could make a big difference in the return on research dollars. My own experience as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and as a patent attorney tends to support Meyers.

I am not so sure that Meyers has hit the nail on the head when it comes to science education. I agree that science is presently taught very poorly. However, I think part of the problem is the numerous educational reforms that have been put in place over the years, with little or no evidence that they work. The result is that many bright kids today leave school not only uninspired, but without a solid understanding of the subject. I would like to see more research on the actual education received by noted scientists--also better quality of educational research in general.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

The Birth Stochastic Science: Rewriting the History of Medicine

Controlled experiment can easily show absence of design in medical research: you compare the results of top-down directed research to randomly generated discoveries. Well, the U.S. government provides us with the perfect experiment for that: the National Cancer Institute that came out of the Nixon "war on cancer" in the early 1970s.

"Despite the Herculean effort and enormous expense, only a few drugs for the treatment of cancer were found through NCI's centrally directed, targeted program. Over a twenty-year period of screening more than 144,000 plant extracts, representing about 15,000 species, not a single plant-based anticancer drug reached approved status. This failure stands in stark contrast to the discovery in the late 1950s of a major group of plant-derived cancer drugs, the Vinca Alcaloids -a discovery that came about by chance, not through directed research."

From Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs, by Morton Meyers, a book that just came out. It is a MUST read. Please go buy it. Read it twice, not once. Although the author does not take my drastic "stochastic tinkering" approach, he provides all kind of empirical evidence for the role of design. He does not directly discuss the narrative fallacy(q.v.) and the retrospective distortion (q.v.) but he certainly allows us to rewrite the history of medicine.

We did not realize that cures for cancer had been coming from other brands of research. You search for noncancer drugs and find something you were not looking for (and vice versa). But the interesting constant:

a- The discoverer is almost always treated like an idiot by his colleagues.
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Format: Hardcover
Much like The Three Princes of Serendip from the old Persian fairy tale about three men who were on a mission but they always found something that was irrelevant but which they ultimately needed in reality, the author of Happy Accidents provides an excellent account of how serendipity has played such a vital role in revolutionary medical discoveries. However, let it be said that though luck played its part, "Chance only favors the prepared mind" - Louis Pasteur. Subsequently the author provides us with the discoveries of many prepared minds and divides the book up into four basic parts:

Part 1: Infectious Disease and Antibiotics
Part 2: War on Cancer
Part 3: The Mystery of the Heart
Part 4: Mood-Stabilizing Drugs & Other Psychotropics

Whether from the fabulous mold of Penicillin, or Australian guinea pigs for Lithium treatments, or to the worst Allied shipping disaster since Pearl Harbor for Nitrogen Mustards for the treatments for lymphomas, chance and unexpected results played its part in all of these, and more, in the history of medical discoveries.

Of all the money spent by Big Government medical research, this compilation of how discovery actually works should give one pause next time we hear the words "War on Whatever" as this money and research, in general, usually goes down a rat hole. In addition and as a cautionary concern, once big money starts its steamroller effect, it usually pushes creativity sadly out of the picture as one gets "your" idea or research is not what we are pursuing at this time.

All in, the book is recommended as there are thirty-nine (39) accounts of many discoveries which are entertaining and enlightening on the unexpected, creative, and prepared mind process.
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