The case for serendipity  pg. 2

To keep the precious culture out of the hands of Nazis, it’s smuggled into the United States, and the mold thrives in the corn steep liquor (the syrupy byproduct of corn starch production) in a federal fermentation research lab in Peoria, Ill. By 1943, penicillin makes it to the battlefields, where it saves the lives of thousands of wounded Allied soldiers.

Double helix, 1953.

The discovery of the double helix, the twisted-ladder structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), by American James Watson and his British colleague Francis Crick gives rise to modern molecular biology.

Watson and Crick come to their pursuit with complimentary backgrounds in physics and X-ray crystallography (Crick) and viral and bacterial genetics (Watson), but they act on the advice of Caltech chemist Jerry Donahue – and the first X-ray pictures of DNA taken by British chemist Rosalind Franklin -- to arrive at a correct DNA model.

In short order, their discovery yields groundbreaking insights into the genetic code and protein synthesis, and a few decades later, helps produce new and powerful scientific techniques, specifically recombinant DNA research, genetic engineering, rapid gene sequencing, and monoclonal antibodies.

Psychotropic drugs, 1950s

An observation by French naval surgeon Henri Laborit that the antihistamine promethazine promotes “euphoric quietude” in patients being treated for shock leads to development of one of the first psychotropic drugs, chlorpromazine. By the early 1950s, the drug, marketed in the United States under the trade name Thorazine, has become a mainstay in the treatment of schizophrenia.

Jonas Salk, M.D., inoculates a child against polio in 1954.
Courtesy of the March of Dimes Foundation
About the same time, two doctors in Staten Island, N.Y., Irving Selikoff and Edward Robitzek, observe that new anti-tuberculosis drugs appear to lift patients’ moods. One of the drugs, iproniazid, is found to block the enzyme monamine oxidase, thereby increasing brain levels of neurotransmitters, and is championed by flamboyant New York psychiatrist Nathan Kline for the treatment of depression.

Thus begins what has been called the “pharmacologic revolution of psychiatry.”

Polio vaccine, 1954.

U.S. physician Jonas Salk defies conventional wisdom to develop the vaccine that helps eradicate polio. Contrary to the widely held view at the time that immunity develops only after the body survives infection by live virus, Salk observes that the body can acquire immunity through contact with inactivated (killed) virus.

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