Sir Alexender Fleming


Father of Life-Saver Penicillin

Alexander Fleming was born, the son of a Scottish hill farmer, in Ayr in 1881. As soon as he was able to walk he showed the interest in sport which was to characterize him throughout life and which was to alter the course of that life, and of the world. He and his brothers, though they were unable between them to afford a gun, would go out on hunting expeditions through the heather, stalking rabbits and catching them in their bare hands. They swam, they ran, they played football and climbed trees. They were happy. But from time immemorial, Scots have tended to go south to make their reputations and their fortunes; the Fleming brothers were no exception. By 1895, when Alec was fourteen, there were four of them living in London in an old house in the Marylebone Road, being looked after by their sister Mary. Alec’s first job was as clerk to a shipping firm, work which he found interesting and congenial, and it is probable that he would have remained, and prospered, in commerce all his life, had not a legacy from an uncle given him the chance of taking up his brother Tom’s suggestion of medical school. Alec agreed, even though the “wasted years” as a clerk made him older than his fellow students. He never regretted those years.

After he had succeeded in passing the entrance exam (and he passed top of all United Kingdom candidates, in July, 1901) he was able to choose his medical school. He chose St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington for the very simple reason that he had recently played water polo against him. This apparently fortuitous decision flung him up against the great bacteriologist, Almroth Wright in whose laboratory he now found himself working.

Fleming was able to do a great deal of valuable practical work in bacteriology in Wright’s laboratory before passing his finals in 1908. The had-picked team he worked with were a brilliant, artistic, talkative lot, very different on the surface from the circumspect young Scot, but their influence on him was considerable.

In the terrible butchery of 1914 many wounded men were coming into hospital with their wounds crawling with bacteria, and Fleming soon saw that antiseptics were useless.

In fact, the only antiseptic which could be of positive value, Fleming realized, was one that would help the body’s natural defenses. Various solutions were able to do this for a few minutes, but soon their efficacy vanished.

He had tried various human secretions and now he found that human tears, dropped into a culture of bacteria, dissolved them with startling speed. The substance in the tear drop which had this effect he named “lysozyme” and he soon discovered that it was contained in nail-parings, hair and skin, and even in certain leaves and stalks of plants. Unfortunately, lyzozyme, which was so powerful against some bacteria had very little effect on the dangerous ones. Its immediate use was therefore limited, but it was an important step in bacteriology. Fleming read a paper on it to the august Medical Research Club in December 1921 and got a frigid reception. Eight years later, he was to get exactly the same reception for his first discovery of penicillin.

Between lysozyme in 1921 and penicillin in 1929, Fleming never stopped his research into his own pet theory—that something from the human body, something living, was the answer to bacteria.

But from the day that the “penicillium notatum fungus” blew in through his Paddington laboratory window, though he was utterly convinced of its ultimate value, Fleming and his colleagues worked on the extraction and stabilization of the drug.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, ten years after its initial discovery, penicillin could still not be produced in large quantity or made stable. Then a team under the Australian Howard Florey, go together in Oxford determined to solve the problem. Gradually they found they were able to purify small quantities of the mould by a complicated method of evaporation—“freeze-drying”—and the time came to try this new drug on a patient. An Oxford policeman was dying of septicaemia from a small scratch at the corner of his mouth which had infected his blood stream. On 20 February, 1941, an intravenous injection of the purified penicillin was given to the dying man and thereafter every three hours. At the end of twenty-four hours the improvement was almost incredible, the patient was practically recovered. Then the penicillin which they had labored so long to produce ran out. The patient hung on for a few days but the microbes, no longer being attacked by penicillin, got the upper hand and he died.

The stuff just had to be made faster and in large quantities. To this end help was sought in America and at last the Northern Regional Research Laboratory of Peoria, Illinois, agreed to help. This laboratory had been working on the uses for the organic by-product of maize, was an ideal medium for the growth of fungi. The laboratory staff became enthusiastic and in a short time Peoria was producing twenty times as much as Oxford. At the same time the research team was on the look-out for mould-strains which might give a larger yield of penicillin. So far every gram of the drug that had been made had descended from the spore that had landed on Fleming’s bench in 1929. Many experiments were made with moulds, but it was not until 1943 that the young woman the laboratory employed in Peoria to go round the markets looking for rotten fruit (they called her “Mouldy Mary”) brought back a canteloup melon. The mould from this, a “penicillium chrysogenum”, provided a remarkably productive mould of the penicillin type, and nowadays almost all penicillin in use is descended from that one rotten melon bought in the market at Peoria, Illinois, U.S.A..

At last, the real value of Fleming’s discovery became clear to everyone. Production, both in England and America, mounted by leaps and bounds. At first all of it was earmarked for the Services.

Honors showed down on the shy and sensitive Alexander Fleming. In July 1944, he was knighted—in the basement of buckingham Palace.

He had refused—as had all the “Oxford Team”—to patent penicillin, a move which could have brought him hundreds of thousands of pounds in royalty payments.

The manufacture of penicillin became public property and all firms shared what knowledge they picked up in the process.

At the end of 1945, while on a triumphal visit to France as a guest of the French Government, Fleming was told that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

A few years later tragedy stuck; his wife, Sareen, to whom he had been devoted and who had given him the support so badly needed when the world laughed, died. Fleming was heartbroken. He devoted his entire life, day and night, to his research. In 1953 he married a Greek girl, Amalia Voureka, a brilliant biologist who had received a British Council bursary to work in England and had found herself, from 1946, in Fleming’s laboratory. Their happiness was short-lived. He died in 1955 of an illness (coronary thrombosis) which his drug was powerless to control.

The discovery of penicillin has revolutionized the treatment of disease and the young doctor of today can hardly realize how helpless his predecessors felt against so many deadly infections. Penicillin and the whole group of “antibiotics” it triggered off have enabled surgeons to perform operations no one would have dared consider a few years ago, and the average expectation of life has increased so greatly that the whole structure of society is altering. All because a brilliant research worker “did not confine himself to observing, he took action at once”.