Born in: Lochfield, Scotland
Career: Biologist and Pharmacologist
Died on: 11 March 1955
Alexander Fleming was a Scottish pharmacologist and biologist who also published many articles on bacteriology, immunology and chemotherapy. However, everyone knows him because of the discovery of the enzyme lysozyme in the year 1922. He was the one who also discovered the antibiotic substance penicillin, back in the year 1928. Read more about his biography, in the following paragraphs.
Alexander Fleming was born on 6 August 1881 at Lochfield farm near Darvel in East Ayrshire, Scotland. His father was Hugh Fleming; Alexander was the third of the four children from his father's second marriage to Grace Sterling Morton. Hugh Fleming, Alexander's father had four children from his first marriage. When he married Grace, he was 59 years old and subsequently died when Alexander was just seven years old.
Initially, Fleming went to Loudoun Moor School and Darvel School and then on to Kilmamock Academy for a couple of years. He started to work at a shipping office where he worked for four years. He also went on to inherit some money from his uncle John Fleming.
He had an elder brother Tom, who was a physician and he was the one who suggested Alexander to follow in his footsteps. It was then in 1901 that Alexander enrolled himself at the St. Mary's Hospital, London and qualified for the school with distinction in 1906.
Since he had very good marks, he had the option to become a surgeon. But, as luck would have it, since he was a member of the rifle club, the captain of the club wanted to retain Fleming in the club and hence, he suggested that Fleming join the research department at St. Mary's. There he took up the job of an assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, who himself was a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology.
Alexander went on to gain the M.B and the B.Sc. with a Gold Medal in the year 1908. Subsequently, he started to work as a lecturer at St. Mary's until the year 1914. Fleming also had the chance to serve his country during the World War I as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. Not only he, but many of his colleagues worked in the makeshift hospitals that were opened in the battlefields at the Western Front in France. However, in the year 1918, he returned to St. Mary's Church where he was elected as a Professor of Bacteriology in 1928.
When the World War I ended, Fleming started searching for an anti-bacterial agent, because he had witnessed the death of so many soldiers from septic and infectious wounds. In an article that he wrote for the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ during World War I, Fleming described an experiment that he had done. In the article, he clearly explained why antiseptics were killing more soldiers than the infections themselves. He also mentioned that though antiseptics worked well on the surface, but deep wounds tended to shelter some anaerobic bacteria from the antiseptic agent and the antiseptics themselves.
These reports of Alexander Fleming were also backed up by Sir Almroth Wright but inspite of this most of the army physicians continued the use of antiseptics even in the cases where the use of these antiseptics worsened the physical condition of the patient in question.
Alexander Fleming did not quite envision the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, rather it was discovered accidentally. During the year 1928, Fleming was investigating the properties of a bacteria named staphylococci. He was already a famous personality who was quite well known because of his earlier work. He had also gained good reputation as a brilliant researcher. Some time during this year, he had gone to a long holiday. After he returned, he noticed that many of his dishes were contaminated with a fungus and hence he submerged the dishes in a solution of disinfectant.
Since he wanted to show his visitors what he had been researching on, he retrieved some of the dishes from the disinfectant. That is when he noticed that a zone had formed around the fungus as a result of which the bacteria could not grow further. He, then, separated a small extract from the mould and identified it as being from the Penicillium genus, and hence named it ‘Penicillin’.
Later on, he started his investigation about the positive and negative effects of penicillin on many organisms, and also noticed that some of the bacterium like staphylococci was affected by it. But, he also found out that penicillin did not quite have the required effect on typhoid or paratyphoid. Fleming went on to publish this amazing discovery of his in the year 1929 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but this gained little or no attention at all. Nevertheless, he continued his research work and investigations. He had the impression that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be effective in treating infection.
Fleming was totally convinced that penicillin would not last for a long time inside the human body and hence would not be quite as effective in killing the bacteria that causes infection. He also performed many tests in this regard, which were, unfortunately inconclusive mainly because it had been used as a surface antiseptic.
Fleming soon abandoned penicillin and after that Florey and Chain took up the research work right where Fleming had left it. They started to produce it with the help of the funds provided by the U.S. and British Government. Penicillin was mass produced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Slowly, so much penicillin was produced that it was enough to treat all the wounded soldiers in the war.
It can be safely said that because of Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in the year 1928, the modern antibiotics came into being. Fleming also discovered very early that bacteria developed antibiotic resistance whenever too little penicillin was used or whenever it was used for short period of time.
On 23 December, 1915, Alexander Fleming married a trainee nurse, Sarah Marion Mc Elroy of Killala, Ireland. She subsequently died in the year 1949. They had a child named Robert who went onto become a general medical practitioner.
After his wife Sarah died, Fleming married Dr. Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas, who was a Greek colleague at St. Mary's hospital. They were married on April 9, 1953. Amalia passed away in the year 1986. Alexander Fleming died on March 11th in 1955 and is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.
- Fleming, Florey, and Chain jointly received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945. According to the rules of the Nobel committee a maximum of three people may share the prize, and hence all three of them received it.
- Fleming was awarded the Hunterian Professorship by the Royal College of Surgeons of England
- Fleming was knighted in the year 1944.