Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences

Khalid Elhassan - September 2, 2019

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
Alexander Fleming. Science History Institute

5. Luck and Twists of Fate Save Millions

Throughout much of his career, there was little to indicate that Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) would someday change the world. He was an unprepossessing Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and microbiologist. Not much in Fleming’s decades of work prior to 1928 heralded his revolutionizing medicine. Until that year, his greatest accomplishment had to do with research on enzymes. But in 1928, Fleming discovered penicillin, the antibiotic that would upend medical care. As a result, millions of patients in the decades since survived deadly infections thanks to penicillin. Incredibly, it all happened by accident.

Lucky breaks and twists of fate marked Fleming’s life. Born in Scotland, he moved to London, where he graduated high school before getting a job in a shipping office. Fleming may have resigned to stay in this position. But an uncle died four years later, leaving Fleming enough of an inheritance to pay for medical school. He initially wanted to become a surgeon. However, while serving in a reserve regiment, Fleming became a great marksman. To become a surgeon, he must leave his medical school and move away – which meant leaving his unit. His commanding officer did not wish to lose the promising reservist, so he introduced Fleming to a prominent researcher and immunologist. He convinced him to become a researcher instead.

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
Alexander Fleming in his lab. Time Magazine

4. The Sloppiness That Revolutionized Medicine

Alexander Fleming served in the Army Medical Corp during World War I. There, he observed the deaths of many soldiers from uncontrollable infections. Antiseptics were used to fight infections, but they often did more harm than good. Fleming conducted research, which showed that antiseptics did nothing to stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. Initially rejected, Fleming, plugged on through his research and kept at it, until war’s end and beyond. One day in 1922, while battling a cold, Fleming transferred some of his snot to a Petri dish. A slob, he then placed the dish on his cluttered desk, where he forgot it for a couple of weeks. When Fleming finally remembered and examined it, the Petri dish was full of bacterial colonies. However, the microscope revealed that one area of snot was free of bacteria.

Further examination revealed that it was due to the presence of an enzyme, which he called lysozyme. The enzyme had some antimicrobial properties. That set the stage for the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Fleming, still a lab slob, left an uncovered Petri dish next to an open window. It became contaminated with fungus spores. When he checked it under the microscope, Fleming discovered that the bacteria near the fungus were dying. He managed to isolate the fungus and discovered that it was effective against numerous pathogens. It affected diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, gonorrhea, and many more. Thus, penicillin was discovered. As Fleming put it: “I did not discover penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident“.

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
Francois Vatel’s death. Pintrest

3. Misunderstanding Makes Master Chef Kill Himself

French master chef Francois Vatel took charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people. They scheduled the banquet at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25, 1671. The banquet honored King Louis XIV. The plans were made only 15 days prior, and Vatel became stressed by a series of minor mishaps. During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected. Two out of twenty-six tables went without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner flowed smoothly, and that it pleased the king, did not comfort Vatel. He continued obsessing about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which depressed Vatel even further.

The next morning – one day before the banquet – Vatel encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish. He asked him if that was all the fish. The supplier, unaware Vatel was referring to the fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks. Vatel broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!“. Unable to endure any future humiliation from a failed royal banquet, Vatel took a sword and ran himself through. Sadly, it did not take long before the misunderstanding resolved itself; fish from other suppliers began arriving soon thereafter. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
Ottoman army advancing on Sophia at the start of the Austro-Turkish War in 1788. Wikimedia

2. A Cascade of Little Mistakes Made an Army Defeat, Rout, and Flee From Itself

History never witnessed a combination of little mistakes that produced such catastrophic consequences as the Battle of Karansebes (1788). This calamity of screwups occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791. It produced what might have been history’s most catastrophic friendly fire incident. During this engagement, an Austrian army somehow managed to kill and wound up to 10,000 of its own men. In addition, they retreated and scattered to the four winds in panicked flight, without an enemy being anywhere near.

The Hapsburgs were never known for military prowess. Instead, they managed to accumulate and maintain an empire through a series of strategic marriages. Empress Maria Theresa aptly summed up her empire’s strategy: “While other nations do battle, you, lucky Austria, you shall marry“. It was probably well that Austria’s rulers seldom went out of their in search of military glory. The Hapsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire, and that diversity showed in their military. The Hapsburg army created units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each other. That would prove a key factor in the farce that occurred on the night of September 21-22, 1788. Read on for the hilarious story of 100,000 Hapsburg troops terrifying themselves.

Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences
The Battle of Karansebes. Pinterest

1. From Small Things Mama, Big Things Someday Come

At dusk on September 21st, 1788, Austrian hussars came from Karansebes to scout across the Timis River. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies, who sold the hussars enough schnapps to get them royally drunk. While they partied, the commander who had sent them out grew worried when his scouts were late in returning. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars, and demanded a share of the schnapps. When the hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and soon escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman decided to prank the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That panicked the drunk hussars into wild flight while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. Unfortunately, many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm was a jest by one of their own, joined the panicked flight.

In the meantime, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of tumult across the river. When panicked hussars and infantrymen reached the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, sentries challenged them, shouting at them to “Halt! Halt!”. Some misheard the shouts as “Allah! Allah!”. In the ensuing confusion, an artillery officer concluded the camp was under attack, and ordered cannons to open fire. As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II barely survived the rout, and someone pushed him off his horse into a creek. The Turks arrived two days later, and found up to 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs in the abandoned camp.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Boredom Therapy – Woman Was a World Famous Dancer in Life, But People Are Still Talking About Her Untimely Death

Business Insider, June 16th, 2017. Spinach Doesn‘t Have As Much of a Key Nutrient Needed in Your Blood as You Might Think

Cracked – 21 Tiny Mistakes That Changed History

Extreme Tech – Tech Wrecks: Lessons From Some of the Biggest Hardware Screwups

Fawcett, Bill – 100 Mistakes That Changed History (2010)

Gargus, John – “The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Not Forgotten” (2007)

History Extra – Mary Rose Facts: When and How Did Henry VIII‘s Flagship Sink?

Pangeanic – The Worst Translation Mistake in History

History Net – The Truth About Tidal Wave

New York Times, November 2nd, 2015 – Gunter Schabowski, Whose Gaffe Helped Burst the Berlin Wall, Dies at 86

Searching in History – Tragic Death of Francois Vatel

Time Magazine, September 28th, 2015 – How Being a Slob Helped Alexander Fleming Discover Penicillin

Wikipedia – Battle of Karansebes

History News Network – Failures of the Presidents: JFK‘s Bay of Pigs Disaster

Wikipedia – Battle of Schongrabern

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