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Sir Alexander Fleming - Scottish scientist, discoverer of penicillin. 1881 - 1955

"Had my laboratory been as up to date and as sterile as those that I have visited, it is possible that I would have never run across penicillin."

Born on a farm near Darvel, near Glasgow on 6th August 1881, he studied locally at Kilmarnock Academy before moving to study in London, where he working in a shipping office for four years before being enrolled at St. Mary's Medical School, London University. After graduating with distinction in 1906, he continued to research at St. Mary's under the supervision of Almroth Wright, and lectured there until 1914, at which time he joined the Army Medical Corps as a captain. He continued to study throughout the war, in his chosen field of bacterial action in the bloodstream.

He married in 1915, and on his return to London in 1918, he continued his researches into antibacterial substances , searching for something which would kill the bacteria without harming the victim. He found a chemical which he called Lysozyme, which worked to destroy bacteria, but few people paid much attention to it. At the same time, he began to develop extraction and assay methods which he was to use later with penicillin.

The discovery of penicillin

In September 1928, Fleming was working on influenza virus, and noticed that a blue mould had grown in a culture plate on which he was growing staphylococcus. He observed that the bacteria was growing actively everywhere except around the invading mould. Whereas many people might have thrown away the inflected culture, he continued to experiment further and discovered that this mould prevented the growth of staphylococci, even when diluted 800 times. He named the active substance penicillin after the mould, Penicillium Chrysogenum notatum. He soon discovered that the antibiotic worked for other bacteria, including streptococcus and pneumococcus, and tested for toxicity, first on lab animals and later, on himself.

The mould proved to be difficult to cultivate, and what little penicillin was extracted was both unstable and tainted with other proteins. In addition, few people at the time paid it much heed, until 1938, when Howard W. Florey discovered Fleming's notes and began to work with Ernest Chain to complete the work of producing and isolating the drug. (Incidentally, their first patient, 43-year-old policeman died - although treatment was successful, they ran out of penicillin. Thanks Kawika)

Although the work on the antibiotic was completed by other researchers, Fleming nonetheless collected 25 honorary degrees, 26 metals, 18 prizes, 13 decorations, a membership in 87 scientific academies and societies. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943, knighted in 1944, and awarded the 1945 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine. The scientific world recognised genius, for even serendipity needs a curious mind and determination to bring forth results.

He remarried in 1953 following his first wife's death in 1949, but died two years later on 11th March 1955. He is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.


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