Stewart Adams was attempting to do the impossible: cure arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis has plagued the world since the 1800s, and doctors attempted all kinds of creative methods to cure the condition. Most failed, naturally, but in the 1950s two men’s solution proved useful in a way they never thought possible. All it took was one wild night out.
It all started in 1953. Pharmacist Stewart Adam and chemist John Nicholson, employed at Boots Pure Drug Company, began working on an improved version of aspirin to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd. / Flickr
Stewart Adams grew up in a farming town. He dropped out of high school at 16 to apprentice at the same Boots pharmacy that would fund the project’s research. There he learned to mix powders and prepare medicines.
American Institute of the History of Pharmacy
After almost a decade of research, the pair filed for a patent for a compound that would later be called ibuprofen. It was granted a year later, and in 1966 they began clinical trials on their achy patients.
University of Connecticut
Ibuprofen launched officially in 1969. It was mainly used for pain in joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles. Compared to aspirin and other pain relievers, it was a lot easier on the gut.
When ibuprofen first came out, it was intended only for treating serious pain and available only through a doctor’s prescription. Nowadays, it may just be the most widely available over-the-counter drug on the market.
k1ds3ns4t10n / Flickr
Before Advil and Motrin, ibuprofen was first given the trademark Brufen. It came in pill and syrup form, and eventually as a cream. The drug was marketed to treat rheumatic arthritis. But how did it go from a joint-pain cream to an everyday necessity of college partiers?
To everyone’s surprise, the drug was about to take on a new life. It began when Adams went to Moscow to speak at a pharmacology conference. He decided to let loose a little bit.
On the night before he was scheduled to give a speech, Adams had a few too many vodka shots at a reception with other attendees. It might’ve relieved stress, but he had something coming the next morning.
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When Adams awoke the next morning, a pounding headache turned his world upside down. In an unprecedented move, he resorted to taking 600 milligrams of ibuprofen and waited for something to happen.
As much as it makes sense now, Adams had no idea whether his concoction would treat his headache. “That was testing the drug in anger, if you like,” Adams told The Telegraph in 2007, “but I hoped it really could work magic.”
To Adams’ surprise, his headache began to calm shortly after he took the ibuprofen. It turned out ibuprofen could treat more than just arthritis, but even Adams wasn’t aware of the road ahead for his new medication.
Could he make his drug more widely available? The U.K. and U.S. are notorious for making new medications go through painstaking testing before they are approved by the government. When it finally happened, Adams called it “the most exciting time of all.”
Years later, after its widespread success, ibuprofen finally hit stands as an over-the-counter medication. This meant anyone could purchase it, even without a prescription! The product began to take on many names, shapes, colors, and acquire its own fans.
Science Photo Library
Adams explained to The Telegraph, “People have told me that ibuprofen really works for them, and did I know it was so good for hangovers? Of course, I had to admit I did.” He knows because he tried it, but a scientific explanation is also to thank.
Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images
When asked if he had other aspirations, Adams said “I would have liked to find something curative in rheumatoid arthritis, not just palliative.” Palliative refers to relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition.
Adams and Nicholson were inducted into the 2020 class of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The pair were honored for inventing a drug that is used globally to safely and effectively treat pain, fever and inflammation, headaches, and even hangovers. For Adams, taking too many vodka shots eventually proved rewarding!
While its beginnings were focused, ibuprofen has developed into a drug with wide-ranging purposes. It has been proven to slow lung disease and lowers the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. A miracle drug, some would say.
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As it turned out, anti-inflammation was the main characteristic of aspirin that was successfully copied in ibuprofen. Alcohol increases inflammation in the body, which makes you tired, lazy and hurting. Adams couldn’t see that connection until he was in dire straits. But he’s not the only man to make a medical breakthrough by accident.
Pacemaker: When Canadian electrical engineer John Hopps was studying the effects of radio frequency heating on hypothermia in 1941, he realized that when the heart stops beating due to icy temperatures, the most sci-fi thing happens. You could say Hopps’ heart skipped a beat.
With the use of mechanical or electrical stimulation, the heart could be restarted synthetically. Hopps’ research led to the first cardiac defibrillation machine, which he used to restart a dog’s heart in 1949. It wasn’t until 1950 that Hopps officially invented the first pacemaker.
2. Corn Flakes: You’ve definitely eaten these yellow, bland flakes in the AM before, and it’s all thanks to the Kellogg bros! In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the superintendent of Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, was on the hunt for nutritious foods to feed the health facility’s patients.
Amelia Toys / YouTube
When John and his brother Will Keith Kellogg accidentally left out a pot of boiled wheat, it went stale. They put the stale wheat through rollers, fully expecting the process to produce a doughy substance. The process actually birthed little flakes, which the brothers then toasted!
3. Silly Putty: That stretchy, salmon-hued goo comes in a little red egg, and you’ve probably stuck it to a newspaper (and your parents’ furniture) at least once. But World War II engineer James Wright didn’t have toys on the brain when he concocted the stuff.
In 1943, Wright was working for the U.S. War Production Board, desperately trying to create a cheap substitute for synthetic rubber at a General Electric lab in Connecticut. He accidentally spilled some boric acid into a vat of silicone oil, which birthed the iconic stringy toy.
AMBER / Trinity College Dublin
4. Chocolate chip cookies: There’s nothing like a freshly-baked Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookie, so it’s crazy to think Ruth Wakefield, the owner of the Toll House Inn, invented the beloved dessert by accident in 1938.
Wakefield planned on baking rich chocolate cookies, throwing broken chunks of chocolate in the batter in place of baker’s chocolate, which she ran out of. Upon pulling the cookies out of the oven, she was downright shocked to see the chocolate pieces still intact, thus inventing the CCC.
5. Slinky: When Richard James, a mechanical engineer, was stationed at Philadelphia’s William Cramp & Sons shipyards in 1943, he aimed to create springs that could secure and stabilize delicate cargo aboard ships in rough waters. When James dropped a tension spring off a shelf, he noticed something strange.
The bouncy spring proceeded to “walk” down several objects until it finally recoiled and stood upright, which intrigued James. Eventually, James’ wife Betty gave the funky spring its recognizable name, and the Slinky made its official debut in 1945, 400 of them selling in 90 minutes.
6. Microwave oven: No, the microwave wasn’t invented for you to make Totino’s Pizza Rolls at 3:00 AM. Maine-based, self-taught Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer unintentionally invented the speedy cooking device while testing a military-grademagnetron, a high-powered vacuum tube in 1946.
During Spencer’s experimentation, he noticed the snack bar in his pocket quickly melted, which caused a light bulb to go off in his head. When he put popcorn in the machine and watched it speedily spring and pop about, he knew he this was the appliance of the future.
7. Penicillin: Upon thinking of fungus, we typically sneer at those spore-producing freeloaders…unless we’re talking about penicillin. When Dr. Alexander Fleming, a London bacteriologist, returned from a vacation in Scotland in 1928, he was greeted by a mess of moldy Petri dishes.
Taking a peek through his microscope, Fleming saw that the mold we know as penicillin killed bacteria he’d been growing, and even prevented further growth of nasty staphylococci. With the help of Dr. Howard Florey, the two isolated and further tested the mold, creating a revolutionary antibiotic.
8. Post-it notes: The invention of the Post-it note was a two-part ordeal. It all started when 3M researcher Spencer Silver was hard at work attempting to create a strong adhesive in 1968. Well, Silver accidentally created a super weak adhesive. You had one job!
Items slathered with the adhesive would stick to other things but could easily be removed without damage. So when Silver’s colleague Arthur Fry used the adhesive to bookmark his hymns in church choir circa 1974, the idea for the Post-it note clicked.
Darren Star Productions
9. LSD as a drug: Before hippies were purposely experiencing psychedelic acid trips on the regular, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally embarked on the world’s first LSD trip while researching lysergic acid derivatives in a laboratory based in Basel, Switzerland. It was undoubtedly radical.
Paper Kite Productions
Though Hofmann developed lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938, it wasn’t until 1943 that he accidentally ingested a bit of it. He recalled seeing “extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” He knew he created a powerful, oddly beautiful, hallucinogen.
10. Fireworks: Though the exact inventor of fireworks is unknown, legend has it that 2000 years ago a Chinese cook accidentally spilled saltpeter into a cooking fire, creating a strange flame. Though we now know saltpeter as an ingredient in gunpowder, it was once used as a spice.
J. Fusco / Visit Philadelphia
Considering charcoal and sulfur were commonly used when making a fire years ago, the blend of ingredients (which happen to all be gunpowder ingredients) created a beautiful display of colors. And when said concoction of ingredients was encased inside a bamboo tube…BOOM.
Though these exquisite inventions were happy accidents, there are plenty of past purposeful inventions that are fantastically quirky and fun, like the bed piano. Though being sick in bed today often involves pulling out a laptop and binging countless Netflix series, in 1935, you played the bed piano until your nose stopped dripping!
2. Television Glasses: Hugo Gernsback, the man known today as “The Father of Science Fiction,” dared to dream of strapping a television set to his face in 1963 — so he made it happen (and later inspired future 3D glasses, too).
3. Man from Mars Radio Hat: Speaking of entertainment on your head, in 1949, Victor T. Hoeflinch created this hat, which allowed wearers to listen to the radio on the go, so long as they didn’t mind wearing a hat that wasn’t exactly a fashion statement.
4. Dimple Maker: In the ’30s, a smile was nothing without a set of dimples to go with it. But the dimple-less were not the hopeless: the Dimple Maker could force dimples onto their smiles by digging into their cheekbones. It did not work well.
5. The First PET Scan Device: As if going in for a PET scan wasn’t scary enough, the first machine capable of performing one was this wire-wrapped monstrosity, developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
6. Portable Sauna: Back in 1962, a Finnish inventor realized that being unable to step into a sauna wherever he went was comparable to actual torture. So he created the portable sauna so he could live every moment in hot, steamy bliss.
7. Sunscreen Vending Machine: Tennis courts, swimming pools, and beaches of the 1940s offered this vending machine, which dispensed little globs of sunscreen right into your hands. Honestly, weird as this was, it could come in handy today!
8. Cone Mask: The inventor of these masks wanted to protect the wearers’ faces from things like hail and rain. Somehow, getting pelted with rain was a big enough problem that he couldn’t just, you know, tilt his head down like three inches
9. Pedal Skates: In 1913, Charles A. Nordling understood people look for any excuse possible not to walk, so he created the pedal skates. A bit cumbersome, yeah, but unlike many other items on this list, they nobly served their purpose for a while.
Online Bike Museum
10. Cigarette Pack Holder: Because smoking one cigarette at a time was totally inefficient (and totally lame by 1950’s standards), this 1955 invention allowed smokers to stop dreaming about chain smoking an entire pack and start doing it.
11. All-Terrain Car: Invented in 1936, this English automobile ascended and descended slopes as steep as 65 degrees. With, what, 12 tires, it must have cost an absolute fortune to manufacture. Speaking of all-terrain…
12. Cyclomer: With six flotation devices, the cyclomer — also called “The Amphibious Bike — was designed to function on land and in water. In practice, it was clunky on dry land, borderline deadly in the water, and no one liked it much.
13. Goofybike: So the cyclomer didn’t catch on, but that wasn’t the end of all bike-alteration efforts. The Goofybike — seen in Chicago, 1939 — sat four people, one of which worked a sewing machine that kept the bike’s weight evenly distributed.
14. Pedestrian Shield: To reduce fatalities, inventors drummed up a shield reminiscent of a train’s cowcatcher to slap on the front of automobiles. It doesn’t look like a much better alternative to the front of a car.
15. Fax Newspaper: Imagine just wanting to catch up on your daily news and waiting (and waiting) for the darn newspaper fax to show up! Cool, but a paperboy standing on the corner was probably more efficient.
16. Shower Hood: Marketed as a way to keep your makeup intact, the shower hood prevented water from hitting your hair or face, which kind of defeated the major purpose of taking a shower altogether.
17. The Baby Dangler: Today, naming your device “The Baby Dangler” would make your peers mock you at best and land you in prison at worst; but back in the day, it was the perfect name for a device that strung up a baby between mom and dad.
18. A Radio-Controlled Lawn Mower: The lawn’s not going to mow itself, so why not invent a small mower operated with a remote control? Developed in the 1950s — and later celebrated by British royalty — the device survived time and still exists!
19. Ice Mask: There were plenty of reasons to drink in the 1940s, and inventors knew it. That’s why one developed the ice mask, which advertisers touted as a cure for the morning hangover.
20. Wooden Bathing Suits: These barrel-like suits were invented in 1929 and, allegedly, acted like flotation devices for swimming (wood floats, after all). But they must have been restrictive!