Alexander Fleming: The Scot who saved more than 200 million lives

Shocked by the carnage of the First World War Alexander Fleming, a brilliant young doctor, devoted his life to fighting the infections that killed so many wounded men, but it was an accident which led to the most significant discovery of the millennium.

Sir Alexander Fleming, pioneer of penicillin. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

Photograph by: Wellcome ImagesSir Alexander Fleming.

Alexander Fleming was born on 6 August 1881 at Lochfield Farm near Darvel, Ayrshire, the third of four children. His father, Hugh, died when he was just a child.

Being a bright boy Alexander excelled at school and won a two-year scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London as a teenager where he studied at the Royal Polytechnic Institution.

By 18 the young man who would go on to become a pioneer of antibiotics and the saviour of millions of lives was working as a shipping clerk. It was a job he did for four years until an uncle died and left him enough money to enrol as a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London in 1903.

After graduating with distinction he joined the bacteriology lab at St Mary’s where he remained until the outbreak of the First World War. Since 1900 Fleming had been a volunteer with the London Scottish and when war broke out in 1914 he was called up immediately and served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

For four long years he worked in the battlefield hospitals of the Western Front where he saw first hand the death of soldiers from sepsis caused by infected wounds often made worse by the antiseptics used to treat them.

After the war he returned to St Mary’s determined to find a solution and over the next 10 years built a reputation as brilliant researcher, developing the use of antityphoid vaccines and discovering the food preservative lysozyme.

However, it was his untidiness which led to his greatest discovery. In August 1928 Fleming stacked all his cultures of staphylococci in a corner of his laboratory and went on holiday with his family.

On his return on 3 September he discovered one culture had been accidentally contaminated with a fungus which had destroyed the bacteria it had come into contact with. It was his ‘Eureka!’ moment even though the modest Fleming later claimed that at the time his initial response was ”That’s funny!”

Fleming's medals at National Museum of Scotland

Photograph by: Brian McNeilFleming’s medals at National Museum of Scotland

Years later he said: “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 suppose that was exactly what I did.”

Fleming identified the mould as penicillin and within 15 years the new drug was being produced in large quantities, by Oxford biochemists Howard Florey and Ernst Chan, for use by the military.

The outbreak of the Second World War accelerated production, with investment from the US, and by D-Day 1944 enough of the new wonder drug had been created to treat all of the Allied wounded.

It has since gone on to treat countless numbers of people around the world and saved millions of lives. It was estimated in 2000 that between 1945 and the end of the 20th century at least 200million lives had been saved as a result of Fleming’s discovery.

Fleming, who refused to patent penicillin in the hope it could be used to develop cheap and effective drugs, was knighted in 1944 and, along with Florey and Chan, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945.

Faroe stamp honouring penicillin pioneer Alexander Fleming

Faroe stamp honouring Fleming

In 1999 he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Important people of the 20th century and has been voted the third “greatest Scot” of all time behind Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

He is honoured around the world. There are town squares named after him in Prague and Athens, a school in Bulgaria bears his name as does the asteroid belt 91006 Fleming. There is even a statue of him outside the bullring in Madrid, erected by grateful matadors because penicillin greatly reduced the number of deaths in the bullring.

Fleming died on 11 March 1955 of a heart attack and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. 
However, shortly before he died, he cautioned the world not to overuse penicillin as bacteria would develop an immunity. He warned: “In such cases the thoughtless person playing with penicillin is morally responsible for the death of the man who finally succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism. I hope this evil can be averted.”