Alexander Fleming: the founding father of antibiotics

Alexander Fleming is one of Scotland’s best-known and most influential scientists. Most famous for his discovery of penicillin, he also made many other medical advances in the fields of chemotherapy, immunology, and bacteriology.

Fleming grew up on a farm in Ayrshire with his seven siblings. At the age of 14, he moved to London to attend the Royal Polytechnic Institution; in 1903, he attended St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and graduated with a distinction.

With degree in hand, Fleming continued on at St Mary’s, researching and lecturing until the outbreak of war in 1914. During the war, Fleming served as a captain for the Royal Army Medical Corps in battlefield hospitals. What he saw there influenced the rest of his life’s work.

Exposure to the brutal wounds and resulting illnesses that were common in hospitals during the first world war drove Fleming to investigate methods of treating and preventing infections. It was this that inspired him to investigate the bacterium staphylococcus aureus.

Upon returning from a holiday in September of 1928, Fleming was cleaning out some petri dishes that he had left while he was away. In one of these, he found something very surprising: a stray mould spore had grown on one of his samples. The contamination itself was not the unexpected part, but rather the consequence.

When Fleming noticed that the staphylococci immediately surrounding the foreign fungus had been killed, he uttered the harbinger of great scientific discoveries: “That’s funny.”

This fungus was, of course, what we now know to be penicillin: the world’s first antibiotic.

The substance could not, however, be successfully extracted for medical use until Florey and Chain of the University of Oxford managed the feat in 1940; the three were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945.

This was not the first time Fleming had made a discovery by accident: in the early 1920s, he discovered the antibacterial enzyme known as lysozyme when he sneezed on a petri dish and, just as he would do again with penicillin, found that the bacteria were killed by the mucus.

Fleming was married twice in his life: once to a nurse named Sarah Marion McElroy, and then, after her death, to the doctor, activist, and politician Dr Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas. McElroy’s vivacity contrasted with her husband’s reserved and humble character; she said of him: “Alec is a great man, but nobody knows it.”

Regardless of whether his greatest discoveries came from poor lab technique, Alexander Fleming undoubtedly revolutionised modern medicine and, as such, is rightly remembered as one of Scotland’s greatest scientists.

Image: Ethel Leontine Gabain,  via Wikipedia

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