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October 1979

Serendipity in Biological Psychiatry—A Myth?

Author Affiliations

From the Laboratory of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Division of Special Mental Health Research, Intramural Research Program, National Institute of Mental Health, Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, DC.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1979;36(11):1173-1178. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1979.01780110027003

• It is often stated that major biological treatments in psychiatry were discovered by accident or serendipity. Tracing the history of the concept of serendipity, we find that serendipity has been subjected to greatly divergent interpretations. According to the current usage, it is a discovery in which chance was a necessary and/or sufficient condition. With this definition, none of the discoveries of major biological treatments in psychiatry can be labeled serendipitous. The necessary factors common to these discoveries were creative minds that were variably influenced by the zeitgeist and that were persistent in their search for answers. Another important prerequisite was the availability of crucial basic knowledge of many related sciences. We conclude that chance cannot substitute for long-term research and that the latter is the most likely way to lead to valuable discoveries.