Sir Alexander Fleming (6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955) was a Scottish biologist and
pharmacologist. Fleming published many articles on bacteriology, immunology and
chemotherapy. His best-known achievements are the discovery of the enzyme lysozyme
in 1923 and the antibiotic substance penicillin from the fungus Penicillium notatum in
1928, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Howard
Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain.
Fleming was born on 6 August 1881 at Lochfield, a farm near Darvel in East Ayrshire,
Scotland. He was the third of the four children of Hugh Fleming (1816 – 1888) from his
second marriage to Grace Stirling Morton (1848 – 1928), the daughter of a neighbouring
farmer. Hugh Fleming had four surviving children from his first marriage. He was 59 at the
time of his second marriage, and died when Alexander (known as Alec) was seven.
Fleming went to Loudoun Moor School and Darvel School, and then for two years to
Kilmarnock Academy. After working in a shipping office for four years, the twenty-year-
old Fleming inherited some money from an uncle, John Fleming. His older brother, Tom,
was already a physician and suggested to his younger sibling that he follow the same
career, and so in 1901, the younger Alexander enrolled at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington,
London. He qualified for the school with distinction in 1906 and had the option of
becoming a surgeon.
By chance, however, he'd been a member of the rifle club (he'd been an active member
of the Territorial Army since 1900). The captain of the club, wishing to retain Fleming in
the team suggested that he join the research department at St Mary's, where he
became assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and
immunology. He gained M.B. and then B.Sc. with Gold Medal in 1908, and became a
lecturer at St. Mary's until 1914. On 23 December 1915, Fleming married a trained nurse,
Sarah Marion McElroy of Killala, Ireland.
Fleming served throughout World War I as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, and was
mentioned in dispatches. He and many of his colleagues worked in battlefield hospitals
at the Western Front in France. In 1918 he returned to St. Mary's Hospital, which was a
teaching hospital. He was elected Professor of Bacteriology in 1928.
Work before penicillin
After the war Fleming actively searched for anti-bacterial agents, having witnessed the
death of many soldiers from septicemia resulting from infected wounds. Unfortunately
antiseptics killed the patients' immunological defences more effectively than they killed
the invading bacteria. In an article he submitted for the medical journal The Lancet
during World War I, Fleming described an ingenious experiment, which he was able to
conduct as a result of his own glass blowing skills, in which he explained why antiseptics
were actually killing more soldiers than infection itself during World War I. Antiseptics
worked well on the surface, but deep wounds tended to shelter anaerobic bacteria from
the antiseptic agent, and antiseptics seemed to remove beneficial agents produced
that actually protected the patients in these cases at least as well as they removed
bacteria, and did nothing to remove the bacteria that were out of reach. Sir Almroth
Wright strongly supported Fleming's findings, but despite this, most army physicians over
the course of WWI continued to use antiseptics even in cases where this worsened the
condition of the patients.
"When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to
revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer,"
Fleming would later say, "But I guess that was exactly what I did." .
By 1928, Fleming was investigating the properties of staphylococci. He was already well-
known from his earlier work, and had developed a reputation as a brilliant researcher,
but his laboratory was often untidy. On 3 September 1928, Fleming returned to his
laboratory having spent August on holiday with his family. Before leaving he'd stacked all
his cultures of staphylococci on a bench in a corner of his laboratory. On returning,
Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies
of staphylococci that'd immediately surrounded it'd been destroyed, whereas other
colonies further away were normal. Fleming showed the contaminated culture to his
former assistant Merlin Price who said "that's how you discovered lysozyme" Fleming
identified the mould that'd contaminated his culture plates as being from the Penicillium
genus, and—after some months' of calling it "mould juice"— named the substance it
released penicillin on 7 March 1929.
Homeschool unless otherwise stipulated.