Perspective: Serendipity and Drug Discoveries

| 01 December 2008

The words luck and serendipity are frequently used interchangeably to describe the evolution of many scientific discoveries. There are nuances of difference, however. Luck is an English word derived from the Middle High German gel cke, which means both happiness and good fortune-conditions that are not necessarily identical.1 The word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754; it describes discoveries made by accident and sagacity. Sagacity, defined as penetrating intelligence, keen perception and sound judgment, is essential for serendipity. Walpole used serendipity to describe some of his own accidental discoveries, but it did not appear in major dictionaries until 1974.2 Since then, serendipity has been used with increasing frequency, and luck much less often, to describe medical breakthroughs and drug discoveries. Good fortune, however, is more apt to occur when a well-trained scientist or clinician is unbounded by traditional theory and uses his or her intuition, imagination and creativity. This article describes a few serendipitous drug discoveries and discusses whether the good fortune will continue.


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