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on July 16, 2012
Happy Accidents is the best book I've read this year. I eagerly devoured it in a couple of days. The book is basically a history of medicine in the twentieth century with a focus on the hypothesis that most of the important discoveries and advances have been the result of chance, serendipitous observations by researchers motivated primarily by scientific curiousity rather than review committee directed research and development. In developing this theme of serendipity, I presume that the author must have been inspired by the book Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science by Royston Roberts, reviewed below(q.v.), a similar book published in 1989, also fascinating in similar vein. Happy Accidents is a fine complement to its predecessor because the earlier focused more on organic chemistry and dreary industrial processes, while Happy Accidents is the grand pageant of medicine in the twentieth century, as told in vivid detail and literary style by its author, a practioner of the same field as me--radiology! It's inspiring that radiologists can have such sparkling erudition, but not at all suprising.

Happy Accidents surges forward with and anecdote-driven, lively style. The stories and histories are richly supported with footnotes and references, which provide a portal to further reading. Books referenced in the footnotes will probably supply much of my reading well into the next year. The author shines light into so many obscure corners of medical history, not covered in standard popular histories. I had considered myself quite a student of medical history, but Meyers shattered my illusions and expanded my knowledge by some fifty percent! And I agree with one of the other reviewers that this book should be a part of the medical curriculum for students. For me personally, the history of how different therapeutics were discovered and why they were developed when they were lends understanding more valuable than the voluminous registers of facts one is force fed in the modern medical curriculum.

Meyers also weaves an interesting thread of cultural history into his narrative, when he closely examines the barbaric ages of lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy. In true Stalinist style, these "treatments" were often used to punish dissenters and non-conformists under the malevolent guise of "therapy". Another story along these lines that I have read about was Lou Reed's "treatment" with electroconvulsive therapy for showing homosexual tendencies. Later, Meyers offers some shocking social history about the involuntary experiments with LSD performed on hundreds a Americans by the CIA under director Sidney Gottlieb. Great stuff.

As to the basic premise of the book, the importance of serendipity cannot be denied, but I question whether this warrants a whole new outlook on the investigative process. A large number of discoveries and inventions (CT, MRI, ultrasound) have been the product of directed research and development. And some of the scenarios the author labels "serendipitous" seem more goal directed to me. For example, when Fleming discovered penicillin, he made a chance observation, but he WAS researching antibiosis, and he discovered antibiosis, albeit in a slightly unexpeced place. Otto Loewi's famous experiment proving the existence of chemical neurotransmitters was part of the natural sequence of the hypothesis forming/testing procedure started by Dale and his British colleagues. And sadly, I wonder whether serendipitous observation is a faculty that can be learned and developed, or whether it is an inborn trait like mathematical ability, which one either has or has not.

Altogether, Happy Accidents is an entertaining, informative, thought provoking book that should be read by any physician or medical student. I was wishing the author would write more books in similar vein, but I aleady see that he has just published a new book, Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science (Macsci), which I will download for my Kindle ASAP!
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on November 11, 2013
I really enjoyed this book! The author, Morton Meyers is a physician who obviously loves this topic. I have been interested in the history of science and medicine for years, and I enjoyed informally "collecting" anecdotes about famous discoveries. I am a physician and 62 years old, so I have heard and "collected" a lot of anecdotes ---- but Dr. Meyers presents many new details of anecdotes, so I was surprised by the nuances that he was able to provide. He obviously has spent a lot of time preparing this book. Also, the accuracy is excellent, and the book is written in an entertaining style. The 25-page Introduction is a fascinating essay in and of itself. There follow four major parts of the book, with a 20 page well-written Conclusion section. There is a 3-page selected bibliography, and then a detailed index. The book covers at least 39 specific instances of serendipity in medicine, and several were ones about which I had previouly heard very little. So this book was a lot of fun and well worth the time. I have always been interested in use of anecdotes for educational purposes, and I was delighted years ago by Richard Feynman's books, such as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman." Walter Glatzer wrote a wonderful collection of short scientific anecdotes called "Eurekas and Euphorias" that also was very entertaining. I used this style of humorous and instructive anecdotes in my own autobiography, "Chess Juggler: Balancing Career, Family and Chess in the Modern World." A reader who is interested in "Happy Accidents" also would enjoy those other three books.
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on July 11, 2017
very interesting
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on March 25, 2007
[...]

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. Meyers describes the vicious side effect of "peer reviewing".

b- Often people see the result but cannot connect the dots (researchers are autistic in their own way).

c- The members of the guild gives the researcher a hard time for not coming from their union. Pasteur was a chemist not a doctor/biologist. The establishment kept asking him "where is your M.D., monsieur". Luckily Pasteur had too much confidence to be deterred.

d- Many of the results are initially discovered by an academic researchers who neglects the consequences because it is not his job --he has a script to follow. Or he cannot connect the dots because he is a nerd. Meyers uses Darwin as the ultimate model: the independent gentleman scholar who does not need anyone and can follow a lead when he sees it.

e- It seems to me that discoverers are nonnerds.

Now it is depressing to see the works of the late Roy Porter, a man with remarkable curiosity and a refined intellect, who wrote many charming books on the history of medicine. Does the narrative fallacy cancels everything he did? I hope not. We urgently need to rewrite the history of medicine without the ex post explanations. Meyers started the process: he provides data for modern medicine since, say, Pasteur. I am more interested in the genesis of the field before the Galenic nerdification.
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on January 3, 2016
I liked very much this book it shows the dicscovery of many drugs,very surprising book.
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on February 7, 2013
This book shows how discoveries happen. It will be much different than the way it is often presented by "scientists".
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on January 11, 2011
I ordered this for a friend for Christmas who is in the drug testing industry. He loved it and even though he hasn't finished it, said it was a great book and right up his alley.
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on October 11, 2017
If you consider "modern" to be 1920-1995 this is the book for you-but not for me. I was hoping for something with more current info and this is just a history book-and I already knew 99% of it. A real waste of money.
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on August 18, 2008
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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on June 17, 2007
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. Meyers' approach to this topic:
Part I: The Dawn of a New Era: Infectious Diseases and Antibiotics, the Miracle Drugs
Part II: The Smell of Garlic Launches the War on Cancer
Part III: A Quivering Quartz String Penetrates the Mystery of the Heart
Part IV: The Flaw Lies in the Chemistry, Not the Character: Mood-Stabilizing Drugs, Antidepressants, and Other Psychotropics

Dr. Meyers draws some conclusions at the end of the book that are extremely thought provoking and left me wondering about the current system that exists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for supporting research and funding specific programs. What is most enjoyable about this compelling book is that Dr. Meyers writes this story with exceptional literary skill and without bogging down into highly technical jargon. While this book will be absolutely fascinating to everyone in the medical field, it can be equally appreciated and enjoyed by the interested layperson as well.

Over the years, I have heard a few of the stories to which Dr. Meyers alludes, but never in their entirety and never appreciating how purely serendipitous was the outcome of a particular diverted research project. The author reflects on his own personal experiences during his distinguished career as an abdominal radiologist. Let me quote directly from Dr. Meyers' Preface, page xii: "Most people have had at least one experience in which an unintentional action or inadvertent observation, or perhaps even simple neglect, led to a happy outcome--to something they could not, or would not, have been able to accomplish even if they had tried."

Quoting further from the Preface, page xiii: "This is the essence of serendipity. Although the term has become popularized to serve as the synonym for almost any pleasant surprise, it actually refers to searching for something but stumbling upon an unexpected finding of even greater value--or, less commonly, finding what one is looking for in an unexpected way...But serendipity is not a chance event alone. It is a process in which a chance event is seized upon by a creative person who chooses to pay attention to the event, unravel its mystery, and find a proper application for it."

In the Introduction of the book, page 6, Meyers reflects on "accidents and sagacity." "Sagacity--defined as penetrating intelligence, keen perception, and sound judgment--is essential to serendipity. The men and women who seized on lucky accidents that happened to them are anything but mindless. In fact, their minds typically had special qualities that enabled them to break out of established paradigms, imagine new possibilities, and see that they had found a solution, often to some problem other than the one they were working on. Accidental discoveries would be nothing without keen, creative minds knowing what to do with them." As stated by Louis Pasteur and quoted by the author, "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind."

In reading this book, I learned of the very common and recurring theme that the discoverers of major breakthroughs were often reluctant to reveal the chance events that led to their ultimate breakthrough. The true story of what actually occurred often did not surface until late in the investigator's career, sometimes during a Nobel Laureate's acceptance speech. By revealing to us the critical role that chance plays in four major fields of medical advances, infectious disease, cancer, heart disease, and mental illness, Dr. Meyers raises important fundamental questions about how the nation's research dollars are currently spent. In his concluding remarks, he emphasizes the need to foster rather than stifle creativity and for the funders of research not to be so rigid and proscriptive in the way research studies are conducted and research dollars allocated.

For those of you who are involved with medical students and physicians during the formative years of their training, I urge you to obtain this book, read it, and absorb the message, and incorporate it into your views of how creative research should be stimulated and supported. This remarkable book by a fellow abdominal imager will change the way you think as well as provide you with a wonderful reading experience.

[...]
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