July 16, 2014 12:55 pm

Most inventors work hard to create and perfect their new products or ideas, going through one formulation after another to create something of lasting impact. For some, the invention of a lifetime is stumbled upon like a happy surprise. In the world of science and medicine, there have been a number of incredible and, in some cases, society-changing new products and cool inventions that were developed by happenstance. Below we take a look through the microscope at some of the most ingenious and life-saving medically inspired inventions.


Physicist William Roentgen was working with cathode-ray tubes, specifically shooting an electric current through a special gas in a glass tube. The gas glowed, which was not the result Roentgen was interested in, so he covered the tube with black cardboard to cover the light. When he again turned on the machine, a chemical a few feet away started to flow. Why? Because the cathode-ray tube emitted invisible rays that could pass through paper, wood, and even skin. The lab chemical reacted to these rays, which were named “x-rays,” with the “x” standing for the “unknown” factor.


Upon returning to his laboratory after a visit to his country home in 1928, Alexander Fleming was faced with a pile of unwashed Petri dishes that had accumulated before trip. The dishes had been left in a tray of Lysol to soak, but because of the large quantity of them, not all had been touched by the cleaner—but instead were covered by a mold that had gotten rid of the bacteria. Fleming tested this mold to find out what in it had killed the bacteria and named the active agent penicillin. The significance of this discovery was not realize until many years later, when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were able to mass produce the antibiotic, which saved countless lives during the Second World War.


The little blue pill with the powerful effect was never meant to assist men with sexual health issues. Rather, it was created to help patients suffering from angina, a heart condition in which the circulatory system constricts and stops the hart form receiving enough oxygenated blood. Although the medicine failed to help its patients’ angina, it did increase blood flow to other organs, as was reported consistently by male test patients.


The story of the first use of quinine to cure malaria is the stuff of legends—quite literally, as the history is one that was passed down through a South American Indian tribe. It is believed a tribesman accidently ingested quinine while suffering through a malarial fever, while drinking form a pool of bitter-tasting pool water sitting near a cinchona tree, the bark of which was known as quina-quina. When his fever broke, he told his tribe mates, and eventually the cure was passed on to Jesuit missionaries in Lima, Peru, on 1630. Their use of quinine as a malaria medication was documented soon thereafter. Quinine is still the main ingredient used in anti-malarials in humans.


When a milkmaid told surgeon Edward Jenner that she noticed that people who contracted cowpox, a disease picked up through contact with cows, did not seem to suffer from deadly smallpox, he had an idea. Jenner inoculated a young healthy boy with pus taken from open cowpox sores on a dairymaid. The boy developed a fever but on the whole remained healthy. A few months later, Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy failed to develop the disease. From this experiment, the idea behind modern vaccines was developed. While it would be another half century before scientists understood the biological basis of immunity, vaccinating against smallpox using a human strain of cowpox became common practice across the globe.


To study the role of the pancreas in digestion, German scientists Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski removed the organ from a healthy dog in 1889. Several days later, they noticed a swarm of flies feeding on a puddle of the dog’s urine. Testing the specimen to determine the attraction of the insects, the doctors found a high dose of sugar in the urine. They determined they had caused this condition due to the removal of the pancreas and made the connection between the pancreas and diabetes. More testing lead to the understanding that a healthy pancreas secretes a substance that controls sugar in the body. In 1923, Candains Frederick Banting and John MacLeod solved the missing link and established that insulin secretions were what regulated the sugar and began to put it to use in controlling diabetes.

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