Like serendipitous, serendipity is one of my favourite words, both for its sound and its meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
And, like Brexiteer, post-truth and quidditch, it was a coinage. On this occasion the person responsible was gossipy Horace Walpole — another of my favourites. He was extrapolating from the now largely forgotten Persian fairy tale of the Three Princes of Serendip.
A present from the Universe, in fact!
Serendipity and Discovery
You could say that Columbus’s discovery of America was serendipitous. He was looking for a western route to Japan, after all. Similarly, aged about ten, I discovered P G Wodehouse in the public library. I’d grabbed a book at closing time without looking carefully enough at the cover. It turned out to be Blandings Castle and Elsewhere and the start of a lifelong love affair.
Victorian research to synthesise quinine has given us the colour mauve, aniline dyes and a major contribution to industrial chemistry. Boy genius William Perkin was 18 and had been studying at the Royal College of Chemistry since he was 15! Perkin carried on his absent professor’s experiments, during the Easter hols in his own apartment in Cable Street.
He didn’t achieve quinine but he got excited about the intense purple of one of his results. He called it mauveine. and developed it commercially. Indeed he started a company to develop and market aniline dyes Not just mauve, which was a great favourite of Queen Victoria’s, but a whole rainbow of colours that remained stable.
The Grand Union Canal running through Greenford was said locally to change colour every week, depending on the colour in production at Perkin’s dye works.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer were about to stop trials on Subject UK92480, an unsuccessful attempt at angina relief. Then their human guinea-pigs started to tell them about a surprising side-effect.
It is now, apparently, the fastest selling drug of all time.
Serendipitous Bug Beater
But this is the big one.
In the summer of 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming, Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, pushed off on a family holiday without clearing his work bench properly. Of course, people said he was always untidy. Anyway, it was a long journey to Dhoon and his son was only 4.
He came back on Monday 3rd September.
Nobody had cleaned up in his absence. There was fine old growth of mould in his Petri dishes. He dumped them in a tray of Lysol, a heavy duty disinfectant. But there were so many — or he was in such a mood — that he didn’t manage to dunk them all beneath the surface.
Fleming investigated. He determined that it contained an active bacterial agent that wiped out a number of harmful bugs, including streptococcus, meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. His findings appeared in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929. He called it penicillin.
But, while interesting, this was not Fleming’s main area of research.
He and his team never managed to isolate the agent or identify its therapeutic effects. In fact, that was done by Howard Florey (Australian, pharmacologist/pathologist) and Ernest Chain (German born, biochemist). The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to all three of them in 1945 for the discovery. Penicillin was the start of the antibiotic revolution.
They did great work.
But a serendipitous discovery started it.
A present from the Universe indeed!