From the discovery of penicillin to the artificial sweetener in our drinks, accidental discoveries have had major impacts on our lives.
T. C. Hsu’s accidental discovery that mitotic cells washed with hypotonic solution can be easily squashed to visualize the chromosomes is now an important scientific technique for cytological studies. Throughout history there have been many cases of scientists who have set out to investigate one thing but instead make incredible “accidental” discoveries of another. Two examples are the discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, and the discovery of saccharin, an artificial sweetener. Even though it might have been luck that had brought the scientists to see an observation, it was genius that made them realize that it was a discovery.
In 1928, after coming back from a month long vacation, Alexander Fleming noticed that one of his culture plates containing the bacteria staphylococc had a strange fungus growth. Even more strangely, Fleming noticed that the staphylococci colonies surrounding the growth were killed. Instead of disregarding his observation, Fleming went on to identify the fungus growth as being from the Penicilium genus and called the substance it released penicillin. He did further researching to investigate the effects of the substance on other gram-positive bacteria and discovered that it has great antibiotic powers. This led to the discovery of penicillin, the first ever antibiotic that is still widely used today. Fleming’s discovery paved way for the rise of the drug development industry.
Saccharin, an artificial sweetener was the product of another accidental discovery made in 1879 by the chemist Constantin Fahlberg. Fahlberg was researching coal tar derivatives when he forgot to wash his hands and noticed that the bread he was eating tasted sweeter. To satisfy his curiosity, Fahlberg begun to taste different traces of residues on his hands and clothes and finally traced the sweet substance to a chemical in his lab. He called the chemical substance saccharin and in 1905 it was used as a replacement of sugar for diabetics.
Constantin Fahlberg, of course, knew that tasting random chemicals are not safe. But, he must have known that he was on the brink of discovering something fascinating. Similarly, even though it was by luck and chance that Alexander Fleming’s culture plate was contaminated by the mold Penicilium., it was the genius of the scientists like Fleming and Fahlberg that allowed them to see the bigger implications their observations have to the field of science. Therefore, luck does play a role in scientific discoveries, but ultimately it is the further investigations done by researchers that can turn a simple observation to a great discovery.