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Issue 2 - The accidental hero: Alexander Fleming

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Scotland Magazine Issue 2
June 2002


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The accidental hero: Alexander Fleming

The story of the Scottish scientist who discovered the 20th century's greatest weapon against bacterial infections by chance...

Alexander Fleming was born to a Scottish farming family of Lochfield, Ayrshire in 1881, one of eight children. He excelled at his studies, and although employed by a shipping firm and part of a Scottish Regiment when the Boer War began in 1900, he eventually chose St Mary’s Hospital in London to study medicine, specialising in bacteriology.

During World War I, as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, he worked in a battlefield hospital station with the wounded, many of whom died from simple infections to their injuries.

On his return to St Mary’s, Fleming researched non-toxic antibacterial and antiseptic substances. It was in 1928 that he made the all-important discovery that would change medicine forever and save countless lives. Fleming had a theory that his own nasal mucus might have antibacterial properties. Leaving some of the substance, staphylococcus, on a petri dish for two weeks while away, on his return he noted that surrounding the mould which had formed on the mucus was a clear halo, mould-free. Left for a further period, more mould grew in the dish, but never over this clear area. Unlike the scientists John Tyndall and D A Gratia who had in fact noted the phenomenon years earlier, Fleming recognised the importance of his discovery. He understood a substance which prevented bacterial growth was produced by the mould, and he named this penicillin. Even when diluted hundreds of times, the substance was still potent.

His findings were published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929, but did not receive the interest they merited for a decade. This was partly due to Fleming’s lack of expertise in chemical production and refinement, which prevented him from performing a crucial experiment: injecting infected mice with penicillin. By 1932 he had abandoned the subject.

If Fleming was the chance vehicle for the discovery of penicillin, it was a team of Oxford scientists who really set its development in motion. Howard Florey, an Australian Professor of Pathology, and Ernst Chain, a German-born Professor of Biochemistry, led the team reinvestigating penicillin. As a result of their experimentation, small-scale manufacture of it began. It was found to be effective against many common killers such as tuberculosis, gangrene, scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, syphilis and many wound- and childbirth-related infections. However, as Fleming himself noted, if insufficient doses were administered, resistant strains of bacteria developed, which is still a problem today.

With the advent of World War II, huge efforts were made to ensure the mass production of the substance by US pharmaceutical companies, and by the end of the war enough had been produced to treat all soldiers who needed it, saving countless lives.

Both Fleming and Florey received Knighthoods in 1944 and the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945, along with Chain.

The name of Sir Alexander Fleming has become synonymous with the discovery of penicillin, though the other key players remain, sadly, virtually unknown. Florey, for instance, did not revel in the publicity where Fleming basked in it. In the Scot, the public had a single figure to look up to and thank for the revolutionary discovery that dispelled fear of disease and death on such a large scale. And after all, Fleming did change our world forever – and very much for the better.