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What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Discoveries, part 2

So last week, I wrote about the combination of circumstances and specific individuals that result in discoveries. I basically concluded that you need both the context of thousands- if not millions- of other discoveries and the presence of individual genius to take advantage of these contexts.

It’s not the whole story though. I left out an important part of discoveries. Sheer dumb luck.

The amount of things that we have discovered by screwing up is staggering.

Saccharin, the chemical in ‘sweet-N’ low’ was discovered when a chemist tasted his fingers. (It also doesn’t cause cancer. Neither does aspartame by the way.)

According to some, we wouldn’t have tires if some careless dude named Goodyear hadn’t have left some rubber too close to a stove.

If it was sunny on the day, instead of clouded over, the first discovery of radioactivity wouldn’t have happened.

Not installing the right resistor gave us the pacemaker.

Viagra was the product of an attempt to cure heart problems.

Post-it Notes, Microwaves, Super Glue, Teflon. The list is huge.

Sometimes it’s people actually screwing up and sometimes it’s because they stumbled upon it when looking for other things. Other times it is the welcome product of failure.  But anyway you slice it, these discoveries happen by accident.

Sort of.

The thing is, like sliced bread and sterile instruments, the context needed to be right. The discovery of radioactivity didn’t happen when someone was looking for a new way to wash the sheets. The guys who found it were trained scientists studying phosphorescent materials. Goodyear was looking for better rubber. Hell, even Kellogg was making food when he accidentally discovered the process to make Corn Flakes.

The whole thing is neatly summarized by the idea of Serendipity.

Not in the Secret kind of way. Not in the ‘when you really need something, the universe supplies it’ kind of way, but in the combination of experiments, failures, by-products, and genius. “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” Or roughly translated: In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur said that in 1854.

Take penicillin for example. It’s discovery is probably the most cited example of accidental discovery. I’m sure you know the story. Alexander Fleming left his work station in a filthy state, went on vacation, some mould grew, and boom- penicillin. Accidental? Yes. Serendipitous? Yup. World Changing? Again- yes.

But it didn’t come completely out of nowhere.

First of all, the man was a trained scientist, working in a lab, looking at strains of Staphylococcus. He was already a well recognized researcher and had a keen interest in antiseptic medicine. Also, he wasn’t exactly working in a vacuum. The effects of mould on microorganisms had been recorded years earlier. A series of scientific observations started as early as the mid 19th century. William Roberts noted that the mould Penicillium didn’t contain any bacterial growth, latter on Pasteur and Joubert noticed the affect of mould on anthrax cultures, and even Joesph Lister (who we also talked about last week) noticed that mouldy urine samples wouldn’t grow bacteria. He even tried to figure out why.

In fact the use of mould goes back even farther than Victorian researchers. The use of mouldy food is recorded in many different traditional medicines. There is reference to it in Egyptian Medical texts, though the use of mould was sometimes combined with other things, like feces, that might not help the infected area that much. Regardless, we do know that moulds have been used for a long time as a means of biological control for microbial infections, but its pretty obvious that no one really new why. It also wasn’t very effective until it could be distilled as medicine. Which didn’t happen until Ernest Duchesne figured it out in 1897. A full 30 years before Fleming accidentally discovered it.

The story goes that while working at an army hospital, Ernest witnessed some stable boys encouraging their saddles to grow mould. When inquiring about why they would do this, he was told that it helped heal saddle sores. He distilled this mould and then did what all great medical scientists do- he injected it into a bunch of diseased guinea pigs.

awww how cute... hand me the needle


Don’t worry, they all recovered. He published his work, but for whatever reason it was ignored. Being a military doctor he was likely too busy to push for more research, or do more himself, and died fairly young. His discovery went unnoticed until 1949, 5 years after Fleming won the Nobel Prize. I`m not saying Fleming new about the idea. He independently (re)discovered it.

Also Fleming's story is about a messy scientist while this guy's story involves the thighs of young stable boys. Just saying.

The thing is, even after Fleming’s re-discovery, penicillin still need more work before it became the life saving medicine we know it as.  Fleming noted the affect, but it took three other guys, Ernst Chain, Normand Heatly, and Howard Florey to turn it into a useful treatment. Florey, Chain and Fleming all shared the Nobel Prize, while Heatly’s work went relatively unnoticed- mainly due to his work going unacknowledged by A.J. Moyer, the doctor he worked with while looking for a way to develop a means of mass production of the drug.

Another story that is sometimes added to this account is the one of Mouldy Mary, a lab assistant named Mary Hunt (no jokes please) who discovered Penicillium chrysogenum on a mouldy melon. Sometimes told as another (apocryphal) example of accidental discovery, the melon was actually part of a large global search for the best strain of penicillin producing mould. P. chrysogeum won, yielding more than 200 times more penicillin than Fleming’s original Penicillium notatum. Then, because it is apparently also what scientists do, they hit it with a  bunch of X and UV rays in an attempt to make an even more virulent strain.

Instead of creating a super-villain named Mould-Man it actually worked, and penicillin began to be massed produced, saving a whole whack-load of lives. And you thought it was just evil scientists and Shredder that made mutated strains of things.

You beautiful little Ascomycetes you...


So, Penicillin, the most widely reported accidental discovery, was only partially discovered by accident. Years of research into microbes, years of searching for a way to cure infections, and some very smart people were all required in order to recognize mouldy contaminated  staphylococci cultures as important.

The similarities between these accidental discoveries and the intentional ones I mentioned last week represent some basic over-arching necessities for any discovery. A series of previous research, a supportive surrounding context, and a keen mind to take advantage of the first two. What does this all have to do with archaeology? Well, I think we can use these examples to look at some great prehistoric discoveries.

Like the “Wheel”.

And “Crops”.

And “Killing Things with Sharp Objects”.

All very important discoveries.

But more on that latter. All this talk about mould and guinea pigs has made me hungry.