Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Serendipity: Is it mere lucky coincidence?

Isuri Wimalasiri
Ratmalana, Sri Lanka


View of Sri Lanka from Ptolemy’s world map of Ceylong

Many Sri Lankans may not be aware that the origins of the term “serendipity” are linked to their country. The word was coined by English writer Horace Walpole, who wrote a letter to a friend about a folk story he once read called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” In that story, three Persian princes sailing to the Far East discovered a picturesque island full of wonders. This island, now known as Sri Lanka, was called Serendip by the Persians. Walpole’s term “serendipity” describes a discovery made by accident, which the crusader (discoverer) was not seeking.1

History bears witness to numerous discoveries made by serendipity. They include the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming, the microwave oven by Percy Spencer, radioactivity by Henry Becquerel and Marie and Pierre Curie, X-rays by Roentgen, and the law of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton. Yet an analysis of these people’s lives shows that all of them possessed many great qualities which contributed to their breakthroughs. Their groundbreaking discoveries were not due to pure luck.

All these discoverers, including the three princes from the folk story, possessed a vast background knowledge in their fields. Without the knowledge to navigate through great waters and survive, the princes would not have had a chance to reach Serendip. Fleming would not have discovered penicillin without the strong background in bacteriology that enabled him to instantaneously recognize the important role his “mold juice” would play in killing harmful bacteria.

An inquisitive mind often paves the way to serendipitous discoveries. Many people before Sir Isaac Newton must have experienced fruits of various species falling on their heads, but it took Newton and his inquisitive mind to make the link between the fallen apple and gravity. Another example is Roentgen, who noticed that the electrical rays passing from an induction coil through a glass tube made imprints on a fluorescent material. Two of his fellow researchers had made the same observation, but only Roentgen investigated this strange effect, which ultimately led to the discovery of X-rays.2

Marie Curie’s biography illustrates that great advances, serendipitous in origin, come to those who are persistent in their mission and have undying passion for what they do. This remarkable woman faced many obstacles such as financial hardship and personal loss but her intense determination kept her going. It was French physicist Henry Becquerel who first described the phenomenon of radioactivity following a serendipitous observation of emission of rays from uranium salt. At Becquerel’s suggestion Marie, along with her husband Pierre, set off to extract radioactive substances from ore of pitchblende. It is said that Curies spent the bulk of their life savings to acquire pitchblende from mines, but were ultimately successful in extraction of polonium and radium from it.This discovery made Becquerel and the Curies Nobel Laureates.

An “intuitive mind” is perhaps more important than knowledge, curiosity, persistence, passion, creative thinking and correct timing. It is as if a cosmic power that defies logic or reason conspires to bring , to quote Louis Pasteur, “fortune to the prepared mind”. Unfortunately, today’s formal education does not encourage intuition. Yet in Albert Einstein’s words, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

It is thus evident that serendipity is not just a stroke of luck. It is a reward given to one who dares to persist and practice excellence in a chosen pathway. It is a gift to one who rebels against all odds and is passionate enough not to be limited in a quest by boundaries or even logic and reason. It is an opportunity that many let slip through fingers, but grasped by the few sagacious enough to recognize it.


Works Cited

  1. Dent S. What is the origin of ’serendipity’? | OxfordWords blog. Oxford University Press; March 30, 2012. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/03/what-is-the-origin-of-serendipity/. Accessed December 28, 2016.
  2. Erdmann M. The story of serendipity. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/serendipity. Accessed December 28, 2016.



ISURI UPEKSHA WIMALASIRI, MBBS, completed her secondary education at Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo. She was able to obtain all island rank 8 at GCE Ordinary Level Examination and entered medical college after GCE Advanced Level. She graduated from Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 2014 with MBBS (Honours) and Distinctions. Dr. Wimalasiri completed her internship at Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children and Castle Street Hospital for Women, two leading hospitals in Sri Lanka as well as in South Asia. She was then selected to the post of Lecturer in Physiology at Faculty of Medicine, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University where she is currently working.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 9, Issue 4 – Fall 2017 &  Volume 10, Issue 1 – Winter 2018
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