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Issue 47 - Sir Alexander Fleming

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009

 

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Sir Alexander Fleming

The man who discovered penicillin and so much more...

Not all great icons of social history were recognised as such in their lifetime, but Alexander Fleming was showered with prizes and accolades following one of the most important medical discoveries of all time: penicillin.

His beginning in life had been relatively humble; the son of a farmer, born on 6th August 1881 at Lochfield near Darvel in Ayrshire. No one could have predicted that this young lad would go on to be a Nobel prize winner, knighted and commemorated, his name attached to educational and medical institutions around the world.

As a boy Fleming attended local schools and then the Kilmarnock Academy, before moving to London and working at a shipping office for five years.

It was only when he inherited some money after the death of his uncle that Fleming was able to fulfil his long held ambition to enter the medical profession, and he enrolled at St Mary’s Medical School at London University in 1901. He graduated in 1906 with distinction, and stayed at St Mary’s in a research capacity as assistant to Sir Almroth Wright, pioneer in vaccine therapy.

Fleming left St Mary’s during the First World War to become a captain of the Army Medical Corps. He saw the horror of battlefield hospitals firsthand, and observed the detrimental effect that antiseptics often had on wounded soldiers.

The great scientific leap occurred once Fleming had returned to St Mary’s after the war had ended. On 3rd September 1928 he noticed that a mould had contaminated a set of culture dishes that was being used to grow the staphylococci bacteria, the bacteria responsible for sore throats and boils.

He observed that there was a bacteria-free ring around the mould, and surmised that the mould was producing a substance that killed staphylococci. He named this Penicillin.

Fleming conducted a number of experiments, concluding that penicillin was very difficult to isolate and produce in any quantity. It seems surprising now, but Fleming abandoned his research into antibiotics at this time, and it was a team of scientists at Oxford University who built on his research some 10 years later.

The Oxford team included Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Fleming in 1945. The work of Florey and Chain and the rest of their team was vital in enabling mass production of penicillin by an American drugs company, so that enough was available to treat all those with infected wounds after the D-Day landings in 1944. This was a monumental breakthrough, bearing in mind the numbers of soldiers lost to septicaemia during World War One.

Observation is the mark of any good scientist, and Fleming had stumbled across something that could so easily have been missed. But penicillin was by no means the limit of Fleming’s work. He had already discovered a bacteriolytic enzyme that he named Lysozyme, and during his career he wrote numerous papers on immunology, bacteriology and chemotherapy. He had excelled throughout his earlier career, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1909. His actions seem to imply that Fleming had no great desire for personal gain, but he did receive the recognition he deserved.

The post-war 1940s saw the rise of the antibiotics, heralded as the miraculous new advance in medicine. Fleming was knighted in 1944 and the Nobel Prize came a year later.

As well as the Nobel Prize, Fleming was awarded honorary doctorates by numerous European and American universities. Also the Medal for Merit (USA, 1947), the John Scott Medal from the City Guild of Philadelphia (1944), the Honorary Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons (1946), the Grand Cross of Alphonse X the Wise (Spain, 1947), to name only a few. His fame spread far.

He was even named Honorary Chief Doy-gei-tau of the Kiowa tribe.

Alexander Fleming died at home of a heart attack on 11th March 1955, and is buried at St Pauls Cathedral.