5 Bizarre Accidents That Helped Invent Modern Medicine
We like to think that medicine is an exact science, as the adjective "haphazard" doesn't exactly inspire confidence when it's applied to people who have the power to stick their fingers up our ugly bits. But it turns out that some of the greatest discoveries in modern medicine didn't come about as a consequence of hundreds of dedicated doctors slaving away for hours in a lab. They occurred because people are often stupid, lazy, incompetent, unlucky or accident-prone.
And some of those people happen to be doctors.
Luigi Galvani, Frogs and Electricity Accidentally Discover How Muscles Work
There's something intrinsically hilarious about the life of Luigi Galvani. First off, his ringlets were so fat you could stuff hot dogs into them. Secondly, he hailed from the University of Bologna. Yeah, the school is historical and prestigious and blah blah blah. Nothing changes the fact that "bologna" is right there in the name.
We weren't kidding, man. Bun and all.
And finally, Galvani loved dissecting him some frogs. Like, all the time. If dead frogs were Mario, Luigi Galvani would be Luigi. So one day, Luigi was just doin' how he do, dissecting a frog to prove that its balls were in its legs, when he forgot that the metal table holding the splayed dead frog was the same metal table previously used for static electricity experiments. And that his dissecting instruments were also made of metal. So when Galvani's assistant touched the frog's sciatic nerve with his electrically charged scalpel, that dead frog leg twitched like it was suffering withdrawal from frog meth.
It wasn't the accurate location of frog testicles, that's for sure. After a few more experiments involving electricity and frog legs ...
... that smelled like chicken ...
... Luigi Galvani and his assistant were the first people to see that it's electricity, not air or water, that moves muscles. This was HUGE, because up to this point, the smartest guys in the world believed that nerves were hollow tubes that functioned as channels for something and that this something was what spurred muscles into action.
When people are stumped, "a series of tubes" is the logical go-to explanation.
Some guys thought it was fluid, and others thought it was air, but no one thought it was electricity. It took an Italian guy with a frog fetish and a memory problem to figure it out. From Galvani's discovery that electricity exists within the body came a whole new branch of science, not to mention the notion that with enough electricity, one could theoretically reanimate a corpse. In other words, without Luigi Galvani and his laughably negligent lab techniques, the world would have never known the joys of Franken Berry cereal.
A Failed Heartbeat Detector Is an Accidental Pacemaker
Who among us hasn't spent a lazy Saturday morning wishing they could implant a tiny microphone into their thoracic cavity to record the sound of their own beating heart? We've all been there. But unlike most of us, former Navy radio operator Wilson Greatbatch thought he could get the job done. In 1958, Greatbatch created a tiny little one-transistor electric circuit to record the sound of a beating heart from inside the body. However, since this was the '50s, said components were still in the "What's this shit? Is it magic?" stage of public understanding, and Wilson used the wrong transistor.
"Is it a fork? Doesn't matter -- just chuck it in there."
Instead of recording heartbeats, the device promptly started sending out pulses at a rhythm of 60 to 70 a minute -- which is a very heartbeaty rate indeed.
Wilson Greatbatch had just invented the world's first pacemaker, which, in retrospect, was probably a lot more bitchin' than inventing the first internal body-noise recorder.
In the world of diseases of the heart, coronaries are the big men on campus, followed closely by "total eclipses of the." One that you don't usually hear much about is heart block, which is shocking, because it's an electrical heart disease. If you have heart block, you have a version of arrhythmia. In this version, the electrical pulse that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat is all jacked up. At the time of Greatbatch's transistor mix-up, there was only one way to treat heart block: by hooking you up to a television-size machine and zapping the bejeezus out of you:
Which used to be the same basic therapy for insanity.
The machine may have saved your life, but it also burned your skin and hurt like a mofo. So it was inconvenient, to say the least. Greatbatch's device, on the other hand, not only took control of the heartbeat through its electrical pulses but also was small enough to plug into the heart cavity itself. After two years of testing, Wilson licensed his technology to a company that got right to work saving hearts through electricity. Fifty years later, millions of people have had pacemakers implanted, and Wilson Greatbatch is still out there, looking as Mr. Magooey as ever.
"Which one of you bitches wants to ride the Greatbatch Express? The answer is all of you."
An Addict Discovers the Key to Painless Surgery
Think back on your college days, or, if you're like a lot of our readers, think about your life right now. Chances are you've got at least one friend who is more likely to be found hitting the upside-down beer bong than hitting the books. And if you don't have that friend, look in the mirror, because it's you. You probably would have got on well with 18th-century poet, chemist and inventor Humphry Davy.
"I could totally smoke some shit out of that."
But the thing about Davy was that he wasn't just an incorrigible party boy -- he was also sort of a self-taught genius, notorious for conducting experiments on himself. And in 1799, he thought he'd try his hand at finding the cure for hangovers by getting his fool ass addicted to nitrous oxide. He not only launched a laughing-gas craze among the upper crust but also published a scientific paper documenting the effects of the gas, which was taken seriously by just about no one.
First meeting of the "Shit Fucks You Up" club.
At one point, Davy found himself with a raging toothache. He sucked on a little nitrous, as he probably would have done anyway on account of his addiction, and discovered that the pain of the toothache floated away like a newspaper kite on a windy day. So at the end of his paper Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, Davy offers one throwaway line casually suggesting the gas could be used for painless surgeries.
As opposed to their usual pain reliever: two bottles of whiskey.
And nobody believed him. Not only did no one believe him, but doctors at the time thought pain during surgery was a good thing; a patient's yelps encouraged doctors to get faster and more efficient, apparently, and it was believed that the pain would somehow help patients heal themselves post-surgery. It took 40 whole years before anyone revisited Davy's idea that surgery didn't have to hurt. And it's fortunate that someone did -- otherwise, most of us would be walking around with teeth that looked like a spilled bottle of Tic Tacs.
A Missed Injection Revolutionizes Heart Surgery
The tricky thing about hearts, besides how breakable they are, is that you can't see them. Usually that isn't a problem, but when we're talking about a guy who's spent a lifetime choosing among KFC, Taco Bell and cutting out the middleman altogether by spooning Crisco into a cone and calling it a day, figuring out which arteries are lard-clogged is kind of important. X-rays are great for broken bones, but not so much for the complicated veins pumping around the heart.
Keeping doctors in business since there were doctors.
By the 1950s, however, heart geniuses had a shockingly simplistic solution: dye. Researchers discovered that they could use catheters to deliver contrast dye to parts of the heart, and the dye would show up on X-rays, revealing abnormalities. There was only one hitch: getting the dye to the right heart parts. They wanted to get close, but not too close. The aortic valve worked for contrast dye, because it's just a one-way train for the blood leaving the left ventricle. It's not like the aortic valve could pump dye to the whole heart and give the patient a dye heart attack.
Which is exactly where F. Mason Sones comes in. In 1958, Sones was just about to inject some contrast dye into the aortic valve of a patient with rheumatic heart disease when the catheter slipped. And just like every other time you hear the phrase "the catheter slipped," this was bad news. Instead of going to the aortic valve, the dye went straight to the right coronary artery, also known as the subway that delivers blood to both ventricles of the heart, also known as "the place where you can't inject dye without killing the patient."
"Shit. Uh ... my bad."
This was about the time that Sones understandably got ready for some fibrillation, also known as the thing that makes the heart stop working and makes the patient die.
Sure enough, the patient's heart stopped. Instead of berserking out, like most of us would, Sones asked the patient (WHO WAS APPARENTLY AWAKE) to cough, which he did. And the heart started beating again, just like that.
Not only was the patient still alive, but now he had a set of glossy X-rays of his heart to keep as a memento of the time his doctor accidentally killed him with heart dye, then brought him back to life. And just like that, the realization that you could get dye into that crucial part of the heart without killing the patient revolutionized the heart-fixing industry. Sure, a little less dye was advisable on account of the whole flatlining thing, but getting pictures of the whole heart was now totally doable. Within less than 10 years, one of Sones' colleagues had performed the first recognized coronary bypass surgery.
Not bad for a guy who slipped a catheter.
Oskar Minkowski and the Dog Pee That Changed the World
Oskar Minkowski's greatest contribution to the world of medicine began with a won bet and a puddle of dog piss. If you're not intrigued yet, you should know that the puddle of urine has probably saved the life of someone you know, if not you directly.
In 1899, Dr. Oskar Minkowski was minding his own business at a university library when he ran into his colleague Josef von Mering. Like most doctors who stumble into each other in academic settings, the two immediately began arguing over whether or not someone would survive having his pancreas removed. Von Mering said "nein," and Minkowski said "da." And to prove he was right, Minkowski ripped the pancreas out of a dog that very afternoon.
That's dog for "Oh no you di'int!"
And that was when things got interesting.
The dog survived, of course, because as we now know, pancreas removal is a thing. But more importantly, Minkowski noticed that flies started loving the shit out of the dog's pee. They flocked to it and drank it like it was fly champagne. While most of us would have chalked it up to the fact that flies are inherently nasty, Minkowski had the good sense to scoop that pee up and test it.
And the rest is history.
The urine proved chock-full of sugar, which was an indication that the dog now had diabetes. And because Minkowski knew the dog was healthy before the removal of its pancreas, he correctly concluded that there was a relationship between the pancreas and diabetes. Specifically, he figured out that there was something in the pancreas that was controlling metabolism of sugar in the body. It took about 20 more years for two other scientists to figure out that the mystery pancreatic substance controlling blood sugar was actually insulin, but they never would have gotten there if it hadn't been for Minkowski's eagerness to remove a dog pancreas and his double eagerness to test that dog's sugar pee.
We don't want to know how he tested it.
In other words, while you have to be smart to make important scientific discoveries, making world-changing discoveries requires that you be just a bit crazy.
And pick up our accidental masterpiece: You Might Be A Zombie ....
For more folks whose bad luck turned good, check out 5 Accidental Inventions That Changed The World and 6 Global Corporations Started by Their Founder's Shitty Luck.
And stop by Linkstorm to see how Swaim was lucky to be given a conscience.
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