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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Alexander Fleming


Sir Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881 at Lochfield, a remote small sheep farm outside Darvel, a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland east of Kilmarnock.

Alexander was the third of the four children of farmer Hugh Fleming (1816–1888) from his second marriage to Grace Morton (1848–1928), the daughter of a neighboring farmer. Hugh Fleming had four surviving children from his first marriage.

Alexander's parents ran an 800-acre farm a mile from the nearest house. The Fleming children spent much of their of time ranging through the streams, valleys, and moors of the countryside. "We unconsciously learned a great deal from nature,"  Fleming said later in his life.

Alexander attended local schools, Louden Moor School and Darvel School, walking four miles to school each day over the moors. He later earned a two-year scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy.

His elder brother Tom had studied medicine and opened a practice in London. Alexander moved to England's capital city when he was about 14 to join him and three other siblings and attended the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute there.

Alexander and two of his brothers joined the London Scottish regiment as volunteers with the view of taking part in The Boer War. They honed their shooting, swimming, and even water polo skills, but never made it to the Transvaal.

At the turn of the century, when Alexander was 20, the Flemings' uncle died and left them each £250. Tom's medical practice was now thriving and he encouraged his younger brother to put his legacy toward the study of medicine.

After taking top scores in the qualifying examinations, Alexander enrolled at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in Paddington in 1903; he qualified with an MBBS degree from the school with distinction three years later.


After completing school Fleming was employed by a shipping firm, as an office boy, earning ten shillings a week.

In 1901, Fleming quit his job and went to St. Mary Hospital to study medicine.  He qualified with distinction in 1906 and began working at St. Mary's as a research assistant for Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy .

His switch to bacteriology was a surprise: If Fleming had taken a position as a surgeon, he would have had to leave St. Mary's. The captain of the rifle club, of which Fleming was a member knew that. Wishing to retain Fleming in the team the captain suggested that he join the research department at St Mary's.

Fleming gained a BSc degree with Gold Medal in Bacteriology in 1908, and became a lecturer at St Mary's until The First World War in 1914.

When news reached Fleming of Paul Ehrlich’s innovative chemical treatment for syphilis, salvarsan, he became one of the first doctors to administer the new bacterial agent. He did so with the new and difficult technique of intravenous injection. So popular was Fleming's  new medical technique that he gained the nickname "Private 606" from the fact that salvarsan was the 606th organic compound Ehrlich had tested.

When the First World War broke out, Alexander Fleming and most of his staff went to France to set up a battlefield hospital laboratory. There they encountered acute microbe infections, many arising from wounds caused by exploding shells which soldiers were dying from. Fleming started to experiment to try to find a chemical similar to salvarsan that could help fight these infections. The Scottish physician succeeded in developing a number of new treatments for those wounded by battlefield injuries and helped to reduce the mortality rate.

In 1918 Fleming returned to research and teaching at St. Mary's. Four years later, while incultering nasal secretion from a patient with an acute cold he found a remarkable element that had the power of dissolving bacteria. This bacterioiolyte element, which Fleming also found in tears and other body fluids, he isolated and called iysozyme.

Fleming retired in 1948 with the title Emeritus Professor of Bacteriolog of University of London, but continued at St Marys as head of Wright-Fleming Institute of Biology.


Alexander Fleming is best known for discovering the antibiotic substance penicillin in 1928, which marked the start of today's antibiotics.

Alexander Fleming’s assistant Stuart Craddock was the first person to be treated with penicillin, for his infected sinuses on January 9, 1929. However, partly due to problems mass producing it, the antibiotic wasn’t widely used to treat infections until World War II.

Picture below is a sample of penicillin mold presented by Alexander Fleming to Douglas Macleod, in 1935.

Science Museum London / Science and Society Picture Library
Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine with Fleming for their work. Fleming humbly responded to receiving the award  “Nature makes penicillin; I just found it."

Fleming ever made any money from his discovery. He had no wish to do so.


Fleming was quiet, reserved, with a strong competitive streak and usually clad in a bow tie. Even in his celebrity he never mastered the conventions of polite society.

In 1915, Fleming married Sarah Marion McElroy of Killala, Ireland, who died in 1949. Their son became a general medical practitioner.

Fleming married again in 1953, his bride was Dr. Amalia Koutsouri-Voureka, a Greek member of his research team at St. Mary's.

A keen amateur painter, many of  Fleming's friends were artists.

Fleming was long a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, a private club for artists of all genres. He was admitted to the club after he made "germ paintings," in which he drew with a culture loop using spores of highly pigmented bacteria. The bacteria were invisible while he painted, but when cultured made bright colors.


Sir Alexander Fleming died on March 11, 1955 of a heart attack in London and is buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Alexander Fleming has a blue plaque in Chelsea, London SW3.

Every bullring in Spain has a monument to Alexander Fleming whose discovery of penicillin saved countless toreadors from dying of gangrene after being gored by bulls.


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