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Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972, March 16, 1941, Image 93

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Some strange stories
of great discoveries
scientists have made
— by happy accident
by J. D. Ratcliff
A few weeks ago a research man
at the Rockefeller Institute
announced a new influenza
vaccine that may save millions of
lives. Only a few weeks before, another
investigator in St. Louis reported the
synthesis of a new vitamin. It would
stop the bleeding into the skull that
accounts for more than a fourth of the
deaths among the newborn.
Bravo, we say. Splendid accom
plishments. The rewards of hard work
by brilliant men. And this, of course,
is entirely true. But luck played an
important role in both of these dis
coveries. The flu work came only after
a ferret happened to sneeze into a re
search worker’s face. The vitamin re
search began when —for no apparent
reason — a few chicks in a biochemical
lab began to have hemorrhages.
Luck has forever been the fickle
and elusive ally of the research man.
At least ninety per cent of the time
research work follows a pattern of
deadly monotony, patiently plodding
a weary path toward a given goal —
and sometimes it triumphs.
But there is always the alluring
Gomral Boetrlr Co.
A chance headache led Dr. Whitney to hit great (ever cure
chance that a happy accident may
make a short cut across the years —
that the worker may blunder upon a
fact which opens up entirely new
fields. These are the fascinating cases
— the sweepstakes winners of re
The discovery of synthetic indigo,
most widely used of all dyes, is a case
m point. For years chemists sought a
cheap substitute for the coloring mate
rial extracted (rom plants grown in
India and elsewhere. Then one day a
worker was stirring a simmering pot
of chemicals with a thermometer.
He wanted to keep an accurate tem
perature record. Heat cracked the
thermometer, spilling mercury into
the chemical stew. Contents of the
pot were instantly changed into a
beautiful dark blue! Mercury was the
catalyst needed for oxidizing naphtha
lene— for making synthetic indigo!
Every textbook tells how Watt ob
served the lifting of a teapot lid and
used the phenomenon as a basis for
his steam engine; how Galileo derived
the laws of the pendulum from chance
observation of a swaying chandelier;
and how Newton saw a falling apple
and discovered the earth’s gravita
tional pull on the moon. These stories
may tie doubtful, but modern science
affords a host of examples about which
there is no doubt.
Suspicious Sandwich
Sl'CH as the discovery of saccharin.
Remsen and Kahlberg were working
on some routine chemistry problems
at Johns Hopkins, with no thoughts
whatsoever of finding a sugar substi
tute. But one day at lunch Fahlberg
noted that his sandwiches were sick
eningly sweet. Since when had they
started putting sugar in bread? he
wanted to know. He took another
exploratory bite. This one was all
right. Puzzled, he touched his tongue
to his fingers. Although he had
scrubbed his hands thoroughly, they
seemed to be covered with an invis
ible powder, sweeter than any sugar!
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He hurried hack to the lab, began
searching the beakers with which he
had been working. In one of them he
found the coal-tar derivative saccha
rin. The substance, 280 times as sweet
as cane sugar, is valuable for diabetics
and reducers. Its discovery was pure
Then there was the lecture that
Elihu Thomson, who later was to win
fame for his work in electricity, gave
one day to his chemistry class at
Central High School in Philadelphia.
Students, unaware that history was
about to be made, watched with cas
ual interest while he rapidly whirled a
bottle half-filled with liquid. They saw
that the centrifugal forces pulled the
liquid up the side of the bottle. But
they did not sec something else that
Dr. Thomson was watching excitedly.
By mischance the liquid in the bot
tle contained some sediment. What
amazed Thomson was that the whirl
ing forces separated this sediment
from the liquid. Why couldn't this
principle be used to separate sub
stances of differing densities? It could.
There were scores of applications.
The cream separator resulted; and so
did the centrifuges used to clarify
glues, varnishes and serums. Luck
Many of the leaps forward that
medicine has taken can he traced to
luck. The sneeze of the ferret already
mentioned was prool positive that
Hu in animals and in men was one
and the same; for the worker who
breathed in that sneeze came down
two days later with the disease. Thus
it was possible to study the disease
in research animals in the laboratory,
and eventually to discover a preven
tive vaccine.
And until Henrik Dam, Danish re
search man, noticed that his chicks
were bleeding to death, for no known
reason, no one had suspected that an
essential clotting factor in blood
might be linked to the presence of a
vitamin in the body. Now that this
elusive secret has been discovered
thousands of lives can be saved.
One of the nicest examples of the
intervention of luck occurred a few
years ago in the General Electric
laboratory. Two workers, McArthur
and Eldridge, were investigating
problems of short-wave broadcasting.
Day after day, while they tinkered
with a new high-frequency tube, they
complained of headaches and the
usual feverish symptoms of the com
mon cold. Dr. Willis Whitney, direc
tor of the lab at the time, investigated.
While the tube was turned on he
noted that body temperature of the
men near it rose to 102!
Artificial Fever
Whitney’s head buzzed with the ex
citement of this thing. He called in
Dr. Charles M. Carpenter, a medical
man, and they went over it together.
In the first place, what was fever?
Simply an effort of the body to throw
off infection. They knew that Julius
Wagner-Jauregg in Vienna had treat
ed paresis patients by deliberately in
fecting them with malaria. The ma
laria-induced fever sometimes killed
the heat-sensitive syphilis microbe.
The idea worked well in many cases.
In others death resulted.
Wouldn’t an artificial fever that
could be perfectly controlled get bet
ter results, Dr. Whitney asked? Tubes
were built into cabinets which would
shoot warming waves through a sick
man. Temperatures could be lifted as
high as 106 and held there for any
length of time. A chance observation
has opened up a whole new field of
healing, valuable in the treatment of a
number of diseases.
A leaking can helped Alfred Nobel,
Swedish chemist, to perfect dyna
mite. Nobel was working with nitro
glycerine and searching for a way to
tame this violent but useful stuff.
Nobel’s brother had died as the result
of a laboratory explosion; other blasts
had wrecked trains and ships.
One day the chemist saw that some
nitroglycerine had leaked out of a
can, spilling onto some sand. A jelly
like stuff resulted which was powerful,
yet easy to handle. This was the first
crude dynamite.
A similar lucky accident gave
Charles Goodyear the secret of vul
canizing rubber. For years he had
sought a way to make rubber hard,
durable and elastic. Then one day a
blob of crude latex and some sulphur
(Continued on page 15)

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