from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 1
Oldfield is professor emeritus at Oregon State University,
Corvallis, where he headed the Department of Animal Sciences and
the Nutrition Research Institute.
He’s a Fellow of the American Society of Animal Science
and the American Institute of Nutrition, and currently edits The
Professional Animal Scientist.
I started graduate school at the University of British Columbia in
1946, my major professor, A.J. Wood, lectured me on his scientific
method. “The really
best way to conduct research,” he expounded, “is to hire good
people and give them a free hand—put no strings on their
activities whatsoever.” “But
unfortunately,” he went on, “the funds I have to pay you have
some fairly tight restrictions, so here’s the general direction
I want your work to take. But
I want you to keep your eyes open as you go along; often the best
discoveries are made by accident.”
thought about his advice many times, since.
The idea of having a great discovery come to me by accident
was fascinatingly attractive.
Beyond the fame and fortune that might accompany it, it
would save a lot of time and effort—important items to a young
man with many alternative ways of using them.
So I launched myself into a career of research in animal
nutrition, carefully following the literature in an area relevant
to my interest, which was trace element metabolism; but also
absorbing whenever I could, stories about great scientists and how
they had done what they had done.
I found that beneficial accidents were called serendipity,
and that there were a good many examples of its contribution to
knowledge and the quality of life.
first example I remember was a very famous one.
During World War II, I had served in Italy and remember a
wonderful new drug, penicillin, which greatly speeded up wound
I found, had been discovered by accident by Alexander Fleming, a
Scot working in St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
The accident occurred when Fleming left a petri dish,
containing Staphylococcus culture, uncovered.
An errant mold spore fell on the dish, killing the bacteria
adjacent to it, and the cause was found to be penicillin, and
antibiotic produced by the mold.
point in ploughing this admittedly old ground, is to point out
that when the accident happened, Fleming was ready for it.
Such accidents are commonplace in bacteriological
laboratories and usually end up in the trash.
But Fleming recalled later, “Instead of casting out the
contaminated culture with appropriate language, I made some
serendipity can’t do it all by itself—the accidents have to be
me put an example from my own experience.
For years, I worked with selenium, a rare micronutrient
that, in very small amounts, is a dietary essential for animals
and humans. When I
read up on selenium I found it had been discovered accidentally by
the Swedish chemist, Jons Jakob Berzelius in 1817.
When Berzelius was investigating worker illness in a
sulfuric acid plant, he found this new element in the acid-vat
slime. The accident
was that Berzelius had pretty well convinced himself in advance
that the problem was exposure to arsenic.
When he found no arsenic in the ore, he was quick enough to
look for other substances and identified selenium.
administrators have taken cognizance of the income-generating
capacity of serendipity, and sometimes (not frequently) have
sought to encourage it. One
example is the Battelle Development Corporation, with the main
objective to identify practical uses for research ideas.
It has benefited in doing this by occasional emergencies of
engineers had been asked to find uses for selenium, which was a
by-product of electrolytic copper refining.
Although they knew selenium to be a photoconductor, they
despaired of using it in a photocopying process they were
it was such an efficient electrical conductor, it wouldn’t hold
a charge. But when
they deposited selenium on a plate in a vacuum, they found that it
would hold a charge—but only in absolute darkness.
This turned out to be a development of great significance,
for the vitreous selenium produced a quantum multiplication of
light, and electrophotography was born.
Serendipity stepped in again when it was incidentally
discovered that the new copies could be reproduced through an
existing office printer made by the Addressograph-Multigraph
this start, the automatic office copier was developed and the name
Xerox entered our vocabulary.
are numerous other examples. DuPont had an exploratory group in its polychemical
department, whose objective was to develop chemicals relevant to
the department’s interests; but in addition to studies assigned
directly by supervisors, the staff was permitted to do some
“bootleg” experiments, if they were done discreetly.
One such experiment resulted in the epoxide synthesis of
hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) when many informed people felt
the epoxides couldn’t be used in making HFPO.
HFPO was a key compound in the synthesis of plastics
because it had chemical stability combined with melt-fabrication
a chance had found a prepared mind, courageous enough to attempt
the “impossible,” and the result was creation of products of
great commercial significance.
Reminiscing recently (Chemtech, 25: 42, 1995) on the
mechanics of these events, H. D. Eleuterio assembled a “formula
for creativity” including the traits of tolerance of ambiguity,
persistence (for perhaps better, resilience), problem formation,
knowledge, communication, and chance.
these are characteristics that can be cultivated.
Such organizations as Battelle and DuPont have found it
profitable to do so, but they have no proprietary hold on the
process: it can be done anywhere.
It takes some strength of administrative character, to
tolerate ambiguity and run the risk of being led on an expensive
wild-goose chase. But
as DuPont’s group showed, it may be well worthwhile.
Eleuterio cites Lewis Carroll’s Alice who declared,
“One can’t believe the impossible things,” only to be put
down by the Queen, who observed, “You haven’t had much
sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before
research administrators might give this a try.
Career of Enjoying Serendipity
I look back over my career and the impact of my mentor’s
teaching on it, I conclude that his advice was sound: you have to
follow an organized path, but you should watch for promising
turn-offs as you do. In
other words, don’t shy from accidents when they occur, but be
prepared to manage them.
this dictum has not brought me great fame, and even less fortune;
but it has led to a thoroughly interesting career and it has been
we discovered that selenium deficiency caused white muscle
disease, that annually killed hundreds of Oregon calves and lambs,
we were investigating a possible deficiency of vitamin E and added
selenium as an afterthought.
Vitamin E didn’t work and selenium did.
I still marvel that a tenth of a part per million of it
added to the diet can be the difference between life and death for
animals. Things like
this are the real rewards of serendipity.