Fleming, Sir Alexander (1881–1955)
Sir Alexander Fleming's significance rests on his discovery in 1928 of the penicillin antibiotic, which transformed medicine profoundly in the 20th century by combating bacterial infections. Chance played a large part in Fleming's breakthrough, as the spores of Penicillium notatum drifted into his laboratory from a downstairs lab that was studying whether this mold triggered asthma. Also, growth of the mold, which must occur first, is triggered by cold, whereas growth of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that Fleming was culturing requires heat. Fortuitously London experienced a cold wave followed by a heat wave at just that time. Furthermore, Fleming wouldn't have seen this growth except for his predilection to keep sample dishes long after they had cultured. In this case he noticed a small ring around the mold free of bacteria. It took another 12 years until the full significance of this discovery was acknowledged and penicillin was recognized as a kind of wonder drug.
Fleming was born on August 6, 1881, in a farmhouse in Lochfield, Ayrshire, Scotland. He was the third of four children born to Hugh Fleming, a farmer, who died when Fleming was seven, and his second wife, Grace Morton. Fleming had two stepbrothers and two stepsisters from his father's first marriage. In 1915 Fleming married Sarah Marion McElroy, an Irish nurse. In 1924 Sarah gave birth to their only child, Robert, who, like his father, became a physician. In 1949 Sarah died; in 1953 Fleming married Amalia Coutsouris-Voureka, a fellow bacteriologist and former student.
After moving to London, Fleming studied business at the Regent Street Polytechnic for two years. In 1901 he inherited £250 and applied this money to medical studies at St. Mary's Medical School, where he won a scholarship in his first year. In 1906 he graduated; he then pursued an M.B. and B.S. at London University, which he received along with the university's Gold Medal in 1908. The next year he passed the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons exam.
After graduation from medical school in 1906 Fleming served as a junior assistant to Sir Almroth Edward Wright in his laboratory at St. Mary's. Before World War I Fleming was a member of the London Scottish Regiment from 1900 to 1914. During the war Fleming served in the British Royal Army Medical Corps, stationed in Boulogne, France. With Wright, he studied the treatment of infected wounds and found that antiseptics, the treatment of the time, not only killed bacteria but also killed white blood cells, thus inhibiting healing. This experience prompted him to investigate other modes of battling bacterial infection without imping Page 237 | Top of Articleing on the body's own defense mechanisms. After the war the Royal College of Surgeons named Fleming the Hunterian Professor in 1919. In 1921 he became the assistant director of the Inoculation Department at St. Mary's.
That year he discovered antibacterial lysozyme in a culture of his own nasal mucus that he collected while suffering from a cold. Though this antibody proved safe to the human body, it did not inhibit bacterial infection. Then in 1928, the same year he was named the Arris and Gale Lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons and appointed as a professor of bacteriology at London University, Fleming discovered penicillin. The significance of this discovery was not recognized because Fleming was unable to isolate the antibody. In 1940 two chemists from Oxford University, Sir ERNST BORIS CHAIN and Sir HOWARD WALTER FLOREY, stumbled across the mention of penicillin in a journal and decided to test it as an antibody. Their isolation, purification, and testing of penicillin revealed it to be incredibly effective against bacterial infection.
Fleming won the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine along with Chain and Florey, though Fleming received most of the recognition. Indeed, he had been knighted the year before. Fleming died of a heart attack at his home in London on March 11, 1955.