Serendipity in Medicine: Unintended Discoveries that Revolutionized Healthcare

Arthuritis Member Posts: 412
edited 28. Mar 2023, 20:21 in Living with arthritis

@frogmorton @stickywicket @Hairobsessed123

You might find this article interesting & thought provoking … maybe even drill into some of the references..☺️


Serendipitous discoveries have played a significant role in shaping the medical landscape. This article discusses 10 such unintentional discoveries in medical treatment, highlighting the physicians or organizations credited with the discovery, as well as any resistance or challenges faced in the acceptance of these breakthroughs.

  1. Minoxidil and Hair Growth (Chidsey et al., 1969)

Minoxidil, initially developed as a blood pressure medication, was found to have the unexpected side effect of promoting hair growth. Upjohn (now part of Pfizer) attempted to suppress this information, but the secret eventually became public knowledge, leading to the development of hair loss treatments (1).


  1. Chidsey CA, Harrison DC, Braunwald E. Minoxidil. JAMA. 1969;207(8):1534-1536.
  2. Cowpox, Milkmaids, and Smallpox Immunity (Jenner, 1798)

Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox were immune to smallpox. This led to the development of the smallpox vaccine and laid the foundation for modern immunization practices (2).


2. Jenner E. An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. London: Sampson Low; 1798.

  1. H. pylori and Stomach Ulcers (Marshall & Warren, 1984)

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori caused most persistent stomach ulcers, challenging the prevailing belief that stress and genetics were the primary causes. Despite initial resistance, their findings ultimately revolutionized ulcer treatment (3).


3. Marshall BJ, Warren JR. Unidentified curved bacilli in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulceration. Lancet. 1984;1(8390):1311-1315.

  1. P. Gingivalis and Autoimmune Disease (Potempa et al., 2017)

Research has shown that treating Porphyromonas gingivalis, a bacterium associated with gum disease, can have beneficial effects on certain autoimmune diseases caused by the citrullination process. This has led to new treatment strategies for autoimmune conditions (4).


4. Potempa J, Mydel P, Koziel J. The case for periodontitis in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2017;13(10):606-620.

  1. Hydroxychloroquine for Rheumatoid Arthritis (Page & McCarty, 1951)

Soldiers returning from war found that their anti-malarial medication, hydroxychloroquine, alleviated their rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. This discovery led to the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for autoimmune diseases (5).


5. Page F, McCarty DJ. Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with a new antimalarial compound. J Lab Clin Med. 1951;37(5):716-722.

  1. Iproniazid and Antidepressant Effects (Kline, 1958)

Iproniazid, initially developed as a treatment for tuberculosis, was found to have mood-elevating effects. Nathan Kline recognized its potential as an antidepressant, paving the way for the development of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (6).


6. Kline NS. Clinical experience with iproniazid (Marsilid). J Clin Exp Psychopathol. 1958;19(2):72-78


  • stickywicket
    stickywicket Member Posts: 27,599

    Thanks, @Arthuritis . Yes, some breakthroughs are serendipitous. I knew about hydroxy, smallpox and helicobàcter pylori. I guess, though, there is, or can be, a genetic elèment for stomach ulcers as the helicobacter gene plays a part, doesn't it?

    In fact, methotrexate was first used as an anti-cancer treatment. I didn't know that years ago when I was on chemo post-mastectomy. I was just pleasantly surprised that my RA improved.

    I also recall our dentist telling me years ago that piriton, which my kids had taken occasionally for hay fever, was now used mainly as a sort of chemical cosh for hyperactive kids.

    We're all experiments in progress😆

    How's the shingles?

    If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving definitely isn't for you.
    Steven Wright
  • frogmorton
    frogmorton Member Posts: 29,016

    Thanks for that @Arthuritis

    Very 'entertaining' certainly interesting I think I knew about the smallpox One and of course my own daughter had methotrexate through a drip when she had leukaemia as one of her chemo drugs.

    I bet there are more, lesser known ones too.


    Toni x

  • Arthuritis
    Arthuritis Member Posts: 412

    @stickywicket on h.pylori the interesting thing was the tremendous effort that pharma selling carbonate pills went through to suppressing Dr Marshall’s findings. There was never any proof of stress and genes causing ulcers, it was assumed so as often stressed execs came for help, but no connection was made that the pain of the ulcer caused the stress! It was not something that had empirical evidence like BRACA 1.

    The following Aussie teaching notes add more colour to the reality we take for granted now.

    I think the NY Times ran a full story on how Dr Marshall eventually won the Nobel for his findings and courage against overwhelming odds given at the time of his discovery he was a relative nobody. The interesting thing is that the body’s natural response to a bacterial stomach infection is to produce more acid to sterilise it, this usually works well, however h.pylori has a clever stealth tactic of hiding under cells that produce acid resistant mucous, and causes havoc there, feeding there, resulting in the stomach producing even more acid in a futile attempt to kill pylori.

    Shingles prob going to sit around for a while, was told to be patient. (Easier said!). Can’t take MTX while shingles is on.

  • Arthuritis
    Arthuritis Member Posts: 412

    @frogmorton I am certain there are loads of such examples as you rightly point out, but seldom acknowledged. I hope your daughter is in long term remission after the MTX.