Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
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Peter Klas. Still life Vanitas. 1630


Being a slob is not good — there is no doubts about it. But a talented person can benefit even from a lack.

This way did this farmer’s son, who used his own carelessness to make two discoveries: the first is very important, and the second is simply great. Which one?

The answer is a little later.




Since time immemorial, people have known that you can’t make a mess, you need to maintain order. Put things in their places if you want to find them later. Try to work out a certain schedule and stick to it if it is possible. Keep your house, your belongings and your body clean.

Even ancient physicians guessed that dirt is harmful and dangerous, and cleanliness is good for health. In order to instill this in everyone, they instructed in their pantheon to take care of cleanliness not just to anyone, but to the special goddess of health, Hygiea, the daughter of the god of healing Asclepius (among the Romans, Aesculapius).

On the statues of Hygiea, a prayer addressed to her was also usually written, which sounded like this, “You, the most highly revered of all celestials, are the goddess of health! Help me with your help to complete the earthly thread of my life. Be kind to me henceforth and be my helper in the house. There would never be happiness if you did not show your favor to it.“

Hygiea, like her father Asclepius, was depicted with a snake and a bowl. In the bowl, according to the legend, there was a drink of life, full of illness and suffering, and the snake had to drink these poisonous beginnings — this symbolized that with the help of the wisdom inherent in the snake, one could be cured.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Hygieia with snake and bowl

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, understood the benefits of hygiene. In his treatise Air, Waters and Places he assessed their impact on health, paying attention to hygiene for the first time in the world. Even the famous Hippocratic oath was taken by mentioning Apollo, Asclepius, Panacea and Hygiea.




All these considerations can only be welcomed, and indeed, for the prevention of diseases, the more cleanliness the better. They even understood that wounds should be cleaned of all impurities — they would heal faster because of this. But some wounds became inflamed and brought death.

Not all inflammations were fatal. The Roman physician Celsus, who described five signs of inflammation — calor, dolor, tumor, rubor et functio laesa (heat, pain, swelling, redness and dysfunction), certainly did not consider inflammation to be fatal. But the risk was very significant.

Even rather terrible wounds could heal if they were looked after (also cleaned). But if an arrow or spear penetrated the abdominal cavity, death was almost inevitable, even if the wound was small. The body temperature rose, delirium began, and life was dwindling.

The Vikings knew about this too. The hero of the book The Thirteenth Warrior says, “If a warrior is wounded in the stomach, then he is given a special decoction of onions and herbs to drink; after that they sniff his wounds, and if they smell of onions, they say, “He has an onion disease,” and everyone knows that he will die.“




Since hygiene was entrusted to a special goddess, this, as it were, hinted at the fact that one who does not honor it is at least an atheist, and do you know what happens because of this? And in the ancient world, serving her led to some success in the cause of public health, cleanliness and general accuracy. That’s good…

Everyone knows that it was in ancient times that the simple idea of ​​the need to wash occasionally finally became really popular. In the palace of Knossos, built about 3,500 years ago, they found the first known bath in history — however, one for 2,000 inhabitants of the palace.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Bath in the Palace of Knossos

And everyone knows about the flourishing of the bath business in Rome — the number of baths in the entire Eternal City reached up to 1000! There were also simple outdoor pools with heated water — the famous Gaius Cilnius Maecenas himself, the patron of art and beauty, donated money for the construction of the first of them.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Baths in Pompeii

The love of the Romans for baths, which combined the functions of a bathhouse proper, a gymnasium, a club and sometimes even a dating house, obviously did not harm their health — even then they guessed that an infection lurked in the dirt. Of course, no one had any idea about microbes, but it has already been said that dirt emits miasma — a kind of harmful fumes, which are better to get rid of.




The Middle Ages, among many other things, is characterized by a kind of revenge of slobs and scruffy people, who made ancient cleanliness and neatness rare. Sometimes it is said that the function of dens of debauchery, characteristic of ancient baths, is to blame, which actually took place, because it did not suit moral Christians. It is hard to believe — the dens just moved.

I also came across another version, according to which the invention of an underdeveloped detail of clothing in ancient times, underwear, turned out to be detrimental to the habit of washing. It is hard to believe — it is easy to overgrow with dirt even for those, who are regularly changing their underwear. There was clearly something else…

Most likely, the point was that the Roman baths were quite complex engineering devices that the degrading medieval society simply could not serve. Providing water at different temperatures and heating is not as easy as it sometimes seems.

A certain renaissance of cleanliness brought, oddly enough, the Crusades. It was from Muslims, in whom frequent ablutions were erected into a religious dogma, the crusaders never took Jerusalem away, but at least they learned to wash their hands before eating.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Bath in the Caliph’s Palace in Granada

But the Middle Ages did not last forever. Aren’t slobs doomed to lack of competitiveness in the active New Age? They get sick more often, they live less, they smell differently, they always lose or forget everything… It turns out that there is more to come — and for those who doubts, here are a few examples.




The first portrait. He practically did not wash his face in the morning, he always walked around in dirty linen and a soiled dress. He loved to roll bread balls, which he sometimes imperceptibly tossed into the soup of those sitting at the same table with him. His carelessness was legendary. Who is he? Nikolai Gogol, you know…

The second portrait. He loved birds and fed them, first throwing food out the window, and then throwing it around his own apartment. Guests who came sometimes could not find a clean place to sit down. Took bath “during big holidays”, never combed his hair at all. Right at the court reception, he could demonstrate urinary incontinence… Who is he? Ivan Krylov.

The third portrait. Books and notes are scattered in the corners; in one place there are cold snacks, in another — corked or empty bottles, on the console — sketches of a new quartet, on the table — the remains of the breakfast, on the floor — letters. And at the same time, like any honest burgher, he loved to glorify his neatness and love of order! He liked to spit out the window. Who is he? Ludwig van Beethoven.

The fourth portrait is a report from a spy following him. “Very messy. Cynical, disgusting man. Rarely bathes and changes linen. He drinks a lot and gets drunk quickly. On the table are manuscripts, books, newspapers, scraps of cloth from his wife’s sewing, cracked tea cups, dirty spoons, knives, forks, candles, inkwells, glasses, pipes, tobacco ash“. Who is he? Karl Marx.

It’s not even horror, it’s horror-horror… But it’s still impossible to deny the talents of these people and the fact that their labors were important to us. Yes, these negative qualities clearly interfered with them. Or maybe they helped? It’s hard to believe, but let’s talk about one more person.




His father had two wives (consecutively, of course) and eight children, four from each. When he was 65 years old, his seventh child was born — we’ll talk about him. Everyone called the baby Alec. He graduated from high school and moved to London at the age of 14, where he began working as an ordinary clerk.

Following the example of one of his older brothers, he decided to become a doctor. He studied well, received a scholarship and was able to graduate from the institute. After that, he came to work in the laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital with Professor Wright. He had been working there for 50 years until his death.

During World War I, Alec became a captain in the medical service and began to study bacterial infections in deep wounds. Studying the action of antiseptics, he proved that they cannot completely destroy the microbes that got into the wound — they penetrate too deeply.

In addition, he showed that a person’s own blood leukocytes, which resist microbes, have a strong effect on these microbes, but when antiseptics are applied to the wound, the effect of the action of leukocytes on microbes decreases significantly or even completely eliminates.

He summarized and published the results of his research. It was quite an interesting scientific work, but it did not represent a sensation. It explained many things — for example, the frequency of death of wounded soldiers from gangrene or sepsis, but offered no important solutions.


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He has already established himself as a talented researcher, and, in principle, he got away with some sloppiness (if colleagues noticed it at all). Once he came to work with a cold and could not resist — he sneezed into a Petri dish in which bacteria were grown.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Colonies of Penicillium notatum in a Petri dish

It could happen to many, but not everyone succeeds in noticing what happened next and what it means. He noticed and tested his suspicions by deliberately adding a drop of dilute nasal mucus to the microbial suspension. After a couple of minutes, the suspension became transparent – the microbes disappeared.

Thus, lysozyme was discovered — contained not only in nasal mucus, but also in the liver, blood, tears and human milk. Now it has been proven that it has not only antibacterial, but also antifungal and even antiviral effects. Unfortunately, not very strong, but still…

Nevertheless, it was new knowledge, and in our time, drugs have even been created based on lysozyme. It became clear why the feudal lords allowed dogs to lick dishes after their feasts — dog saliva also contains lysozyme. Maybe they knew something?




Lysozyme acted weakly, and the substance found as a result of the following inaccuracy was much stronger. No wonder — it was the world’s first antibiotic!




Of course, it’s not very good to work in a medical laboratory with a runny nose — the other would be staying at home… But then someone else would discover lysozyme. But working in such a laboratory with open windows is even worse — you never know what the wind will inflate? Here you go, it turned out well.

After the weekend, untidy Alec returned to work and saw that the entire colony of staphylococcus he had left in the Petri dish had died. The results of his inaccuracy — an inopportunely opened window? In general, yes. The other would have calmed down on this, but Alec decided to figure out why it happened.

He easily discovered that instead of staphylococcus, fungi began to grow on the nutrient medium — quite common and already known. It was natural to assume that it was these fungi that caused the death of the bacterial colony. Will the bacteria in the body die?

At first, he could not even isolate a substance that gives such effect, and used in his further experiments a filtered broth in which these fungi grew. It turned out that not only staphylococci die there. He published the results and began to try to extract the active substance from this broth, and sent his samples to colleagues at their first request.




Did anyone before him know that mold can heal? Absolutely, yes. Even in ancient Egypt, they knew that applying moldy bread to wounds could help them heal. Something similar was known in Ancient China, and even in the Inca Empire.

In the Canon of Medicine Avicenna also mentions the treatment of mold fungi. Described this in his writings also the reformer of medicine Paracelsus. Because their writings were classics, they were obviously read by a lot of people. But almost no attention was paid.

Already in the 19th century, the Frenchman Ernest Duchen spoke at the Pasteur Institute with a report on the effect of mold on the causative agent of typhoid fever. And in 1913, the Americans Сarl Alsberg and Otis Fisher Black were able to isolate an acid with an antimicrobial effect from a fungus. But they were not noticed.

Almost four years before Fleming’s happy accident in the laboratory, the antibacterial properties of mold were described by his friend André Grazia. But he fell seriously ill, and when he returned to work, he allegedly could not find old records and samples. His work was not developed.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Fleming at work




They, too, could get similar results, but did not show perseverance. And our Alec, or, to be official, Alexander Fleming, showed it. For ten years, he sent samples of his healing substance to his colleagues, and in 1939, an emigrant from Germany, Ernst Chain, isolated the active principle from it, and Howard Flory tested it on animals with great effect.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Flory and Chain

In honor of the fungus Penicillium notatum, Fleming named this substance penicillin. This fungus is not very productive, and at first there was not enough penicillin. For the first human patient, a 43-year-old wounded policeman, they even filtered his urine to isolate the penicillin and put it back into the body. But still it was not enough, and the patient died. This problem also needed to be addressed.

The war accelerated the matter — a remedy for wound infections became urgently needed. Fleming’s employees flew to the United States, soaking the fabric of their coats with healing mold so as not to attract Nazi spies. Everything went well, and penicillin began to be studied in the United States.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Model of the chemical structure of penicillin

Thanks to the efforts of Mary Hunt, who was nicknamed Moldy Mary because she looked for all the moldy products in the markets, in the USA a much more productive strain was quickly found on rotting cantaloupe, and the yield of penicillin increased 20 times.

The production of penicillin quickly began to grow, forcing to forget about the shortage. In 1945, its output reached 15 tons per year, and in 1950 — 150 tons. And in 1945, Fleming, Cheyne and Flory were awarded the Nobel Prize. And in 1999, Time magazine named Fleming one of the 100 most important people of the entire 20th century, saying that “this discovery changed the course of history”.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to make a discovery due to inaccuracy?
Nobel medal in medicine

Already in his declining years, in glory and honor, Sir Alexander Fleming visited the new medical laboratory — sterile and kept in perfect order. “What could you discover here!” they asked him. He smiled and said that he would not have discovered penicillin here.




It’s still not good to be sloppy. But everything in the world — both good and bad can be used. And the one who knows how to do this will find good sides even in his own mistakes and negligence.

Honor the goddess Hygiea, make proper sacrifices to her with soap, hot water and shampoos! And here is a prayer to this goddess, “It is necessary to wash in the mornings and evenings, and shame and disgrace to unclean chimney sweepers!”

It’s a dissapointing to admit this and I don’t want to at all, but talents and even geniuses can also have their shortcomings, sometimes very unpleasant ones. But with them, shortcomings will die, and great creations will remain…

When Fleming showed mold-contaminated bacterial cultures to his former assistant, Merlin Price, he said, “That’s how you discovered lysozyme.” So now you are talking about the fact that this discovery is accidental…

They say that little Winston Churchill somehow almost drowned in a swamp, and Fleming’s father saved him. In gratitude, Churchill Sr. paid for Fleming’s education, and then penicillin, discovered by Fleming, saved Churchill from pneumonia. Complete lie! But beautiful…

Bacterias get used to penicillin, and it doesn’t heal as well anymore — the bacteria adapt too quickly. New antibiotics help, but bacteria adapt to them too. This race against bacteria is not so easy to win — we need a new talented slob…


All illustrations are from open sources

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