The Life of Alexander Fleming

The man who changed the world and revolutionised medicine, in many ways, predominately through his work in discovering Penicillin. This making Alexander Fleming known as the father of antibiotics.

Early Years

It was 6th August 1881 that Alexander Fleming was born at Lochfield farm, on the outskirts of a small town in east Ayrshire called Darvel. He is the third of four children of Hugh Fleming and Grace Morton- both of which come from a long line of Ayrshire farmers. Alexander had 4 other half-brothers from his father’s previous marriage, though did not know them very well. Alexander gained a great love of nature during his childhood- with his parents operating a 800-acre farm.

His family were fairly poor and his father’s health was in decline, leading him to die while Alexander was just seven years old. Alexander and his brothers attended a small primary school in Louden Moor and was one of about 11 pupils. He would later attend Darvel’s High School, which would require him to walk 8 miles per day (to and from school). Finally, his basic education would finish at the Kilmarnock academy- where he had earned a two-year scholarship.

There is a bizarre story/myth involving Alexander Fleming and Winston Churchill. The story goes that a young, 10-year-old Winston was on a family holiday in Ayrshire, Scotland, when he fell into a local loch. Winston could not swim at this point, and a local boy by the name of Alex (Fleming) apparently jumped into the loch and pulled the boy Churchill to safety with the ww2 leader subsequently counting Alexander as a hero of his. Aswell as there being no record of Churchill visiting Scotland as a boy, Fleming is also 7 years his junior- meaning he would have been only a child at the time of the supposed drowning. Its a very bizarre and outlandish story that did the rounds in the 60s & 70s- though clearly there is no truth to it.

Photo: The child Alexander (courtesy of mirfaces.com)

For higher education- Alexander was to move to London in 1895, where his brother Thomas stayed and studied. In London he attended the Royal Polytechnic School and subsidised this by working in a shipping office as a clerk in the city for several years- earning only around 10 shillings per week. Alexanders brother Thomas was training to become a doctor at this point and had encouraged Alexander to follow suit. However, financial difficulties looked to have stopped Alexander in his tracks- that was until his Uncle John passed away, and left him a significant amount in his will.

The young Alexander would enrol himself at St Mary’s Medical School at the University of London. This beginning his long association with St Mary’s. Alexander would complete his medical degree, seemingly with ease, in 1906. Having been awarded his bachelor of science degree, he went on to become a researcher at the school, under the wing of Almroth Wright- a well-known researcher and pioneer in the medical fields, particularly in vaccine therapy. Wright also served as the Head of the Inoculation Department and made Alexander one of his lecturers in 1908.

During this time in London, Alexander has also enrolled himself in the military. He became a member of the Territorial Army and the London Scottish Regiment- where he served from 1900 to 1914. Later becoming captain of the Army Medical Department, he would be heavily involved in world war one, spending much if his time in hospitals in France and Britain. It was in the Boulogne (France) war hospitals that he would witness many men survive the initial battle wounds but die from disease caused by them. Alexander would successfully demonstrate that the antiseptics used were only effective in treating superficial wounds, and that it was harmful when applied to deep wounds.

Despite these warnings and demonstrations- he was generally ignored. However, he refused to use the antiseptics and his unit were the only ones in world war one not to use this to treat the wounds- instead using alternative methods of treatments (predominantly salt water). Around 30-40% of all soldier deaths during the war was caused by bacteria-related diseases, none more so than pneumonia. If Fleming’s antiseptic preaching was acted upon when he was over there then that number would likely have decreased drastically.

Photos: Dr Fleming served as a medic during ww2- his frustrations in which provided much of the inspiration for his studies after the war (photos courtesy of the science museum)


Professor Fleming

He was erected as Professor of Bacteriology at the University of London upon his return in 1918. Continuing his research on antibacterial substances, in 1922 Alexander would discover the antimicrobial enzyme which he named Lysozyme. Lysozyme, as Alexander discovered, is present in tears, saliva, skin, hair and nails. He discovered the enzyme while investigating a growing bacteria culture. He had deliberately allowed a drop of mucus from his nose to drop into his petri-dish, and after a short period he noticed that the protein in his snot (mucus) was obstructing the growth of certain strains of bacteria in the culture. This new protein was named Lysozyme by Fleming, who had combined the terms ‘lyse’ and ‘enzyme’. 

Alexander was subsequently able to isolate large quantities of the new substance from the egg white of hens- but it remained effective for only a small number of non-harmful bacteria in humans. Despite this new discovery going on later to make significant and life-saving contributions to science, and particularly the prevention of bacterial infections- Alexander Fleming quickly realised that there were no wide medical utilisation that could be made by his lysozyme at the time, and moved on to continue studying other antiseptic chemicals.

The view has been generally held that the function of tears, saliva and sputum, so far as infections are concerned, was to rid the body of microbes by mechanically washing them away… however, it is quite clear that these secretions, together with most of the tissues of the body, have the property of destroying microbes to a very high degree.

Alexander Fleming

It was in 1928 that Alexander, his wife and young son would all return home. They would stay in Scotland for a one month break. Prior to his return, Alexander had left several petri-dishes filled with colonies of Staphylococcus (the deadly bacteria responsible for many diseases- pneumonia, fevers, abscesses) in his private laboratory, which is something he regularly did for experimental purposes. Upon his return back to London, Alexander discovered that one of these petri-dishes had become contaminated by blue-green mould. Alexander then noticed that the staphylococcus in the dish was prevented from growing due to this new mould creating a protective circle around it.

Upon this discovery, Alex had thought he had found another enzyme- one that was more powerful than the Lysozyme. However, after conducting further investigations he quickly realised that this was not another enzyme, but instead a substance that would be known as an antibiotic, the first of its kind. Bacteria and moulds had been studied before, dating back to the mid-19th century. It was previously referred to as antibiosis, but nothing ever came of these earlier experiments. After studying the petri-dish- Alec was able to create mould juice, and this substance would change the course of history. Alexander Fleming would name these new findings Penicillin.

He would hire two assistants, Stuart Craddock and Freddy Ridley, and would give them the formidable task of attempting to isolate pure penicillin from the mould juice- which proved to be too difficult at that time, with the team only able to prepare small infusions of raw material to work with. Alex then went out publishing an article about the discovery and its consequences in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. Incredibly, the article was generally ignored and no use was made of this new substance during the following decade. Alexander Fleming himself had moved on, and in that decade, the 30s, he stopped studying penicillin. At this point Alexander did not have the resources, nor the necessary background in chemistry, to progress the antibiotic any further.

However, his work would be continued in the earl 1940s by a very notable professor of Pathology- the Australian Dr Howard Florey, along with his German biochemist assistant Ernst Chain. Howard Florey had read Alexander Fleming’s paper in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, and put together a team of highly dedicated scientists- with the ambition to create a usable drug that would change the course of medicine. The resurrection of the discovery of Alexander Fleming was to take place at the Radcliffe Oxford Infirmary.

One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.

Alexander Fleming

(photo courtesy of hekint.org)


Progression of Penicillin

Howard Florey and Ernst Chain would experiment with Alexanders creation with a fairly large team of chemists. It was at the Radcliffe Oxford Infirmary, where Florey and Chain were based, that this team were able to purify the antibiotic and thus create Penicillin that could be utilised. The new drug would be initially put to the test in experiments involving mice. The team deliberately infected 50 mice with the deadly staphylococcus (producer of many deadly diseases). Sepsis, the deadly reaction caused by the infection, was devastating for 25 of the infected mice who died what was an inhumane death. The other 25 had received the penicillin- and all survived.

The developments meant that penicillin could be used for the first time in humans, perhaps rushed due to the mass disease being spread around during the war. This is maybe why the first test, on a man called Albert Alexander, was a bit of a failure- though his story is a reminder of the importance of this discovery. Albert, who had served in the police force in London, had simply cut his face on a rose thorn. But he became very badly infected with staphylococcus. This was fairly common in these days- everyday cuts leading to brutal killer diseases. Albert developed horrific infections, most notably overwhelming abscesses, around the side of his face. This eventually lead to the removal of his left eye and seen him given a new life expectancy of just 6 weeks.

Howard Florey and his team brought Albert to their lab within the University of Oxford and injected the PC with around 150mg of the Penicillin, initially. They administered similar doses for 5 days, and watched as Albert began a miraculous recovery. The infections began dying down, and by the fifth day were at a controllable level. However the team had only managed to extract a certain amount of raw Penicillin, underestimating the length of the treatment required, and they had now ran out.

Albert Alexanders infections quickly became overwhelming once more and he died around a month after the last injection. Over the next 12 months though- the team would work tirelessly to create the drug in abundance. The Untied States seemed to be acting as a bit of a pressure group to get the drug to the market, and it was an American patient by the name of Anne Miller who was the next to receive the treatment.

Miller was at the wrong end of several infections, including one which led to blood poising, and was in great distress. All this following a miscarriage. The same dose that was successfully tested in Albert Alexander was administered to Miller, and like Albert she began showing signs of recovery within the first 24 hours. A 21-day treatment was carried out, and Anne Miller was discharged following its conclusion.

By the end of the 1944 it was widely available, and had saved countless lives during the war. The world of medicine would be revolutionised. Diseases such as meningitis, pneumonia, abscesses and many other infections could now be treated very effectively. Many that of these killer diseases were brought about often by small things, that probably happen to alot of us everyday. Penicillin has saved a seemingly never ending amount of lives- both us and animals.

Photos: Alexander with Florey and Chain at Nobel Peace Prize ceremony 1945, and original Penicillin mould (courtesy of thesciencemuseum.com and nobelpeaceprize.org)

The discovery of Penicillin was to bring truth to an ancient Egyptian myth. The medical myth, which had been put into practice across Europe aswell, was that mouldy bread had some sort of miracle healing power. The ancient Egyptians would place mouldy bread over infected areas, particularly in the mouth area (abscesses), believing it would heal their diseases. It did work, occasionally, and now we have a better understanding why.

Nature makes Penicillin- I just discovered it

Alexander Fleming

Sir Alexander

In 1945, Alexander had replaced his long time mentor, Almonth Wright, as the head of the Inoculation Department at St Mary’s, aswell as becoming Rector at the University of Edinburgh. For his heroic work and efforts, Alexander would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine later in the same year. The award would be shared with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. Aswell as bring the founder of the initial Penicillin (which gave him the right to name it) it was Alex’s strong background with the substance, and willingness at the time to be interviewed about it, that brought him to receive significantly more recognition than Florey and Chain.

Honourably, the Ayr man was knighted in 1944. Received as a knights bachelor, he was given the knighthood by King George VI. Of course Alexander was now very notable across the world, and received much international recognition for his achievements. In Spain he was awarded with a civil knighthood of the Alfonso X the Wise in 1948, while there is a statue of him in Madrid city centre- which was uniquely payed for by subscription of the local community, in gratitude at the amount of lives Penicillin saved. There is also a statue of him in Barcelona.

Alexanders famous laboratory in St Mary’s today homes the Fleming Museum, while the university he attended is no longer there (having merged with London College in 1990) but there is an Alexander Fleming Building as part of the new campus. Elsewhere the Flemingovo Náměstí square in Prague, the 91006 Fleming Asteroid, and the Alexander Fleming College of Peru are other tributes to the hero, while he has received more than 30 honorary doctorate degrees from Universities across Europe and the United States. Other awards received by the scientist include-

  • Albert Gold Medal, Royal Society of Arts 1946 🇬🇧
  • Honorary Gold Medal, Royal College of Surgeon 1946 🇬🇧
  • Arris & Gale Award, Royal College of Surgeons 1929 🇬🇧
  • Medal For Merit, United States 1947 🇺🇸
  • Cameron Prize, University of Edinburgh 1945 🇬🇧
  • John Scott Medal, City Guild of Philadelphia 1944 🇺🇸

Aswell as these accolades for his professional work, Alexander also received recognition for his personal artwork. In the late 1920s Alexander had become a member of the Chelsea Arts Club in London. Although it was not a particularly fruitful spell, he developed here the techniqies he would later use in his germ-art collection. He is considered a pioneer of Microbial art (germ art)- this being where the professors become artists and paint their masterpiece within a petri dish, with the germs being used as the paint. Little notice was paid to Alexander’s paintings during his lifetime, though they have became popular with modern art enthusiasts and his techniques are commonly applied by microbial artists today.

(photo courtesy of icollector.com)

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.

Mr X has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife.

Mrs X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs X’s death? Why Mr X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Alexander Fleming, Nobel Peace Prize Speech

Personal Life

During his time in the war, Alexander was based for a large period in Bolougne, in the north coast of France. It was here that he briefly worked with an Irish nurse by the name of Sarah McElroy, and the two began dating during the war. They continued their relations in Britain following the conclusion of their service, and married on December 23rd 1915. They would go on to have one child, Robert, in 1923. Robert would be Alexanders only spawn and become a doctor himself in his later life. He is still alive today. Robert had one child, a daughter- Penelope Fleming. Alexanders only grandchild.

Following the death of Sarah, Sir Alexander was to marry once again. In 1953 he married Greek doctor Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas (also known as Lady Fleming), after being long colleagues at St Mary’s and close friends They would marry in the Greek Orthodox Church in central London. Unfortunately their marriage would only last two years- this time it would be Ayr man who was cutting things short, following his later death in 1955. Amalia, 30 years his junior, would remarry, and died herself in 1986.

The antibiotics chief began interactions with the freemasonry community upon his progression from St Mary’s, and was initiated as a member of the Sancta Maria Lodge of London in 1909, at the age of 27. He remained a Freemason for the remainder of his life, and later served on the United Grand Lodge of England- as a Junior Grand Warden.

Freemasonry rules can often be speculated on, though its clear there is not a smoking policy within the group as Alec enjoyed little more than a cigarette- he was known as a chainsmoker, though this was not an uncommon image for doctors in the 20th century.

(photos: Alexanders only child, son Dr Robert+ Robert with Alexanders granddaughter Penelope meeting the queen) (courtesy of imperial.ac.uk)


A Final Gulp

On the morning of March 11th 1955 the wife of Alexander, Amalia, would call the family doctor following what was a difficult night for the kind and gentle man. He had been suffering from severe nausea and patches of hot and cold sweats. Alexander was not keen to inconvenience the doctor and so Amalia was told it was not necessary for the doctor to visit him that afternoon. However, within minutes of Amalia’s phone-call with the doctor- Alexander died in his bed, unaware that he was suffering from coronary thrombosis. Alexander, a heavy smoker and drinker during his life, did not appear to be fazed by death and knew it was coming. The hero would be cremated, with his ashes placed within St Paul’s cathedral in London.

Alex died as he wished: quietly, without a gradual decline in physical or mental capacity, and even without inconveniencing his physician.

Amalia Fleming

Many have discredited Ayrshire hero over the years, primarily due to the fact his substance was discovered accidentally. But its worth pointing out a few things in defence of the antibiotics chief. It was not an ‘accident’ as such. Alexander, who was very dedicated to his work, would regularly, deliberately, leave petri-dishes lying around his lab for long spells before investigating the substances that was left. That seems to be the name of the game- these kind of scientists are not inventors, they are discoverers. They research and study, and they are dedicated to making important advances in their respective fields. Rather than inventing something new as such.

So Alexander Fleming did not invent antibiotics- through his dedication to his work, and personal suffering, he simply went on a one man campaign to outsmart nature. And did just that.


Sometimes one finds what one is not looking for.

Sir Alexander Fleming

(photo courtesy of unknown

**ive corrected some notable errors. Apologies

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