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Alexander Fleming (1881 - 1955)




Sir Alexander Fleming in his laboratory at St Mary's Hospital, London

  Photograph by Topical Press

So, who was Alexander Fleming?

Alexander Fleming was born on the 6th of August, 1881 at Lochfield Farm, Darvel, Ayrshire. He went to work as a shipping clerk in London, where when he was aged 20, he inherited some money. He had always wanted to become a doctor, and so in 1901, he enrolled at St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London. He was good at research and five years later joined the research department at St Mary's, where he was assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright.

Fleming and Wright were involved in inoculation of servicemen against typhoid during the First World War. Fleming discovered that the antiseptics used to treat wounds were more harmful than they were good as they destroyed the bodies natural defences.

Back at St Mary's in 1918, Fleming continued his work on bacteria. It was there in 1928 that he made his greatest discovery.

What did he discover?

In 1928, Fleming was working on the staphylococci bacteria - the kind that cause boils and sore throats, when, whilst he was examining some old bacterial plates that he noticed a mould had grown on one of his cultures. He saw what he believed was unusual in that some of the colonies of staphylococci that should have been growing near the mould had disappeared. Fleming thought that the mould could be making something that was capable of destroying the bacteria. He did some more experiments and found that this was indeed the case. He cultured the mould by growing it in broth. The mould was later identified as Penicillium notatum which had produced what we now call penicillin.

What did Fleming do now?

After making his discovery, Alexander Fleming published his work in 1929 and strange to say, did not continue this research, partly because it was difficult to make and store. He was convinced that it would be able to save many lives and when asked he sent samples to world-wide laboratories.

What happened after this?

At Oxford University, in 1938, Professor Howard Florey and Dr Ernst Chain were studying the effects of substances produced by living things on bacteria which try to harm them. They read the work on penicillin by Alexander Fleming from some ten years before and decided to replicate his experiments. They encountered the same problems as Fleming when it came to preserving and storing penicillin.

During the Second World War (1939-1945), there was an urgent need for drugs to deal with infected wounds and other diseases and so Florey went to the United States of America to work with other scientists at the Northern Regional Research Centre, Illinois. They discovered a cheap source of broth in 1942 and then found a fast growing penicillin mould on melons which were in a local supermarket.

Pure penicillin was eventually manufactured commercially. Penicillin became a wonderful weapon in the fight against diseases once considered deadly. Its discovery led to the development of other similar antibiotics.

How were the discoverers of penicillin rewarded?

Alexander Fleming was knighted in 1944.

In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

When did Fleming die?

Alexander Fleming died on 11th March 1955. He is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.