Top accidental discoveries in medicine 1440 x 639
Hannah Light

Hannah is Digital Marketing Manager at Star OUTiCO.

6 February 2019

When German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, discovered the technique of producing x-rays it wasn’t actually what he was trying to do. It was an accident, so it got us thinking about other accidental discoveries in medicine, and just how much we owe to those plucky scientists and their curiosity.  


Put simply, if Scottish scientist, Alexander Fleming, had cleaned his laboratory dishes, we may have had to wait a lot longer for these life-saving antibiotics to be discovered. Fleming had spent some time away from his studies in his laboratory for a few days, and when he returned he discovered an odd fungus had developed inside a dish containing a staphylococci culture. Not only that, he realised that it had killed off all the surrounding bacteria. Penicillin was born! 

The X-Ray

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was exploring the path of electrical rays through a gas inside a glass tube. The gas inside the tube began to glow, and although Röntgen covered it in black paper he then noticed that a screen coated in fluorescent material in his room had begun to glow as well.  

He then realised that some things could be penetrated by the x-rays, including his own hand after some further experimentation. He soon produced a photographic plate and captured the first x-ray image of a body, meaning that observing the internal structures of a person could be done without surgery.  


An anticoagulant that was later used as a blood thinner, warfarin was discovered through the rather horrible deaths of some cows in Wisconsin. In 1933, a farmer sought help from biochemist, Karl Paul Link when some of his cattle began to haemorrhage. The farmer, Ed Carlson, told Link that the cows’ feed may have began to rot, and after Link tested it he discovered an anticoagulant in the sweet clover hay.  

This anticoagulant was sold commercially as a rat poison called warfarin, and when Link researched it further he discovered that it could be used to treat people with conditions such as blood clots. 

Nitrous Oxide

Originally marketed as a ‘mood enhancer’ and peddled in country sideshows, nitrous oxide was, and still is, known as laughing gas. In 1863, Englishman, Joseph Priestley, who had already discovered oxygen in its gaseous form, combined iron filings with nitric acid and discovered that it produced a tingling, numbing effect when inhaled. 

Dentists, doctors and surgeons then began to explore the drug as an anaesthetic, improving the outcomes of thousands of surgical procedures

Implantable Pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch took the pacemaker design from Swedish cardiac surgeon, Åke Senning, and doctor, Rune Elmqvist, and improved its life from three hours to 18 months. Greatbatch had already filed 150 patents but invented the pacemaker by accident. 

While building a device to record heart sounds, he noticed that it was making a rhythmic noise like a heartbeat and spent the next two years working on it. In 1960 his patented implantable pacemaker was approved for human use and commercialised, giving people with some cardiac problems a new lease of life. 

Inspiring, isn’t it?