We will examine some major life sciences discoveries to see how and to what extent the key requirements for making a useful discovery were met. In addition, we will see what scholars who have looked at the discovery process have identified as critical elements of success or change. Of course, this excursion will tend to focus on situations where a discovery of great value occurred – and so will ignore the millions of people and organizations that tried and failed to come up with solutions to the world's major health and agricultural problems. But we can still learn something from success.
We begin with a story from the Renaissance. Our ancestors did not know how their bodies were assembled and how they worked. Of course they observed bones and muscles, blood and mucus, breath and sleep – and illness. But although they had many theories, they did not know how their bodies functioned even at a gross descriptive level. The Greeks and the Arabs had some published work, with the most definitive being a treatise by the Greek physician Galen. But as Rome fell and the Dark Ages descended, new discoveries seemed to be in short supply; physicians, surgeons, and barbers (who doubled as surgeons) were limited to quoting “divine Galen” to justify their recommendations and treatments.
A signal change occurred with the work of Andreas Vesalius (1514–64), who was born in Brussels in the Spanish Netherlands as Andries von Willens, and was known as such for most of his career. He was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Padua in Italy at age 22. (Under the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was more of a boundary-free, unified entity for intellectuals – with a common language, Latin – than it has ever been under the European Union.) Vesalius’ father had been apothecary to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, his grandfathers had been court physicians, and to the best of our knowledge the son's goal was to achieve a similar sinecure. To do so, he had first to rely on his own resources and wits to generate the new information needed to make his contribution.