Where should we look for future medical breakthroughs? Poisonous, egg-laying water-mammals could be a start…

Richard Wallace

In the nineties comedy show This Morning With Richard Not Judy, which was somehow aired during the day (it was a different time back then) co-host Richard Herring starred in the recurring satirical segment Food and Milk, in which he appeared to taste the milk of various animals. Not your garden-variety cows or goats, either—more like beavers (“fishy,” according to Herring) and even the milk of human kindness (“but it’s all gone!”) TMWRNJ was commissioned at the height of Britpop and Ecstasy, a decade of excess and decadent postmodern anarchy—there’s very little chance it would be aired today. And yet perhaps the irreverent Herring and his comedy partner (a young, smug Stewart Lee) were onto something on their cult show. Scientists, it transpires, have since discovered a protein that could help us solve the antibiotics problem for good. And it comes from an unusual source. Duck-billed platypus milk.

If only scientists had been paying attention to Herring’s hi-jinx at the time. Antibiotic resistance has been one of the gravest threats facing the human race for years now, and we haven’t really known what to do about it besides taking fewer antibiotics. It was only in 2010, some fifteen years after Food and Milk first aired, that scientists discovered a specific protein contained in platypus milk, and only now that the value of this so-called “Shirley Temple” protein (so named for its curly structure) is becoming apparent.

Whether this will lead to a major breakthrough is yet to be seen, but it’s proof that getting creative and exploring out-there territories is often valuable, even if it might not seem like it at the time. Once, siphoning milk from water-based mammals was the sole purview of slapstick comedians, and any self-respecting person of science might be socially ostracised for chasing platypuses around instead of getting on with their work. But now that we know such actions could have potentially revolutionised medical science and, if we’re lucky, saved human lives, they’d be vindicated. The message is clear: play is good. Timewasting is good. Watching profane TV comedy instead of going to work is good.

Or something similar, anyway. Big answers hide in places we might never expect, and the only way to unearth them is by doing something that might otherwise seem a bit pointless. Creatives are probably familiar with this principle already (that’s why you’re at home in your socks in the middle of the day, right?) Just like how a Fearlessly Frank Unframing project designed to imagine the future of your industry might not solve your specific current business need, but is valuable as a tool for leaving business as usual behind in pursuit of new territories to explore.

But let’s not get off track. Despite being the few mammal to lay eggs, and the only one able to detect electric currents and attack with poisonous foot-based spurs, it seems the almost-magical platypus had so much left to give. What other innovations could be hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered by some left-field insight? We don’t know yet, but at Fearlessly Frank we’ve got a good feeling about raccoons. Round ‘em up, people.