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July 11, 1977

Fruitful Metabolism of Error

JAMA. 1977;238(2):156. doi:10.1001/jama.1977.03280020060028

When T. S. Eliot wrote, "The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason" (Murder in. the Cathedral), he clearly did not have in mind the scientific investigator. To the moral philosopher, motivation may be paramount, but to the scientist, the important thing is the result—the deed—regardless of the reason that prompted it. Many important scientific breakthroughs have been made in the course of research inspired by wrong reasons. False notions of astrology led to major discoveries in astronomy. Futile pursuits of alchemy paved the way to achievements in modern chemistry. In this century, Domagk's discovery of the effectiveness of Prontosil against streptococci was a "deed" of the utmost benefit, yet the underlying assumption was false. The colorless part of the molecule, sulfanilamide, rather than the red dye held by Domagk to be the active agent, was responsible for the antibacterial action. A long