Sir Alexander Fleming, the Nobel prize-winning biologist, bacteriologist and pharmacologist, was born on the 6th of August, 1881.
During his marvellous career, Sir Alexander Fleming was known for his research on bacteriology, immunology and chemotherapy. However, he is best known for his discoveries of the enzyme lysozyme, in 1921 (or 1923?), and, more importantly, in 1928, the life-saving antibiotic substance penicillin. For that latter discovery, Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize with Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. In 1999, in recognition of his contribution to medical science, ‘Time Magazine’ named Fleming one of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’. The influential magazine called penicillin “a discovery that would change the course of history”. It was surely an accurate reflection of its impact, half a Century earlier. Penicillin was to alter forever the treatment of bacterial infections and by the middle of the 20th Century, it had contributed to the growth of a huge, international, pharmaceutical industry, signifying the end for some of mankind's most ancient scourges, including syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis.
Alexander Fleming was born on the 6th of August, 1881, at Lochfield Farm, a little north of Darvel in East Ayrshire. As a boy, he roamed the countryside and took an interest in the flora and fauna that surrounded his father’s farm. "We unconsciously learned a great deal from nature," he was to say later in his life. Alexander was educated at Loudoun Moor School, Darvel School, and then Kilmarnock Academy. After the death of his father, when Alexander was fourteen, he and four siblings moved to London, whilst his eldest brother took over the Fleming family’s farm. His brother, Tom, who was close in age to Alexander, started a medical practice in London and encouraged his younger brother to do the same. However, seemingly lacking funds, he had to suffer the disappointment and was employed for five years in a shipping office.
At the age of twenty, he inherited money from an uncle and in 1901, he was able to at last embark on realising his ambition. He enrolled as a student at St Mary's Hospital Medical School, in Paddington, which was part of London University, from where he graduated with distinction, in 1906. He was a brilliant student and excellent at research, and although he was planning to follow a career as a surgeon, his vocation seems to have emerged in a paper he published in 1906. That paper was on a field in which he would excel in the future – immunology. Somewhat by chance then, after graduating, he became an assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology at the research department of St Mary's.
In World War One, Fleming served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, spending much the time in Army hospitals in France, and was mentioned in dispatches. During that War, Fleming saw at first hand the limited effectiveness of the antiseptics then available to successfully treat infected wounds. He and Wright were involved in the inoculation of servicemen against typhoid and discovered that the antiseptics used to treat wounds were more harmful than beneficial as they destroyed the body’s natural defences. After the war, he returned to St Mary's to find a solution to the problem and began his research into anti-bacterial substances. Initially, he developed the use of anti-typhoid vaccines and discovered lysozyme, an enzyme found in body liquids (tears), which had a natural antibacterial effect. In 1928, a significant year for Fleming, he became Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary's.
That year of 1928, Fleming made his life saving discovery. While working on the influenza virus in his cluttered lab, on the 3rd (or the 28th ?) of September, he noticed that in a contaminated lab culture, a common mold, like you can find on stale bread, was growing. Although that wasn't surprising, what the mold was doing was startling. Surrounding the mold in the contaminated culture dishes, the colonies of staphylococci bacteria – the kind that cause boils and sore throats – had disappeared. Fleming thought that the mould could be producing something that was capable of destroying the bacteria. He was inspired to experiment further and found that this was indeed the case. He cultured the mould by growing it in broth and the substance it produced was later identified as ‘Penicillium notatum’, what we now call penicillin. Of his discovery, Fleming said, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for." He published his work in 1929, but strangely enough, didn’t continue his research, partly because it was difficult to make and store. However, he was convinced that it would be able to save many lives.
The difficulties of developing the fragile substance commercially meant that it took fifteen years before penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic drug, could be produced in large quantities. For that, we have two other scientists to thank. At Oxford University in 1938, the Australian biochemist Howard Walter Florey and his colleague, Ernst Boris Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, read Fleming’s work and decided to replicate his experiments. These two Professors were able to isolate the bacteria-killing substance found in the mould and its efficacy was proven by Doctor Charles Fletcher. Fletcher tried some of Chain’s and Florey’s penicillin on a wounded patient in Oxford, who initially showed signs of a spectacular recovery. Unfortunately, the poor man died a few weeks later. It wasn’t the penicillin that killed him, it was the lack of penicillin; he got the Penicillin Blues.
The outbreak of the Second World War gave an impetus to the research as there was an obvious urgent need for drugs to deal with infected wounds and diseases. Florey got an American drugs company to mass produce penicillin and by D-Day, there was enough supply to treat all the bacterial infections that broke out among the troops. Penicillin became the ‘wonder drug’ and in 1945, Fleming, Chain and Florey were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. It became the most important weapon in the fight against diseases once considered deadly and is still used to treat all kinds of bacterial infections.
Alexander Fleming was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1943, and knighted in 1944. Sir Alexander Fleming died of a heart attack in 1955 and his ashes were interred in St Paul's Cathedral.