– PEOPLE WORTH REMEMBERING –
Where would the world be without the extraordinary efforts of Sir Alexander Fleming? This week, Tidbits delves into the life story of the man who discovered penicillin.
• Although born to humble Scottish farmers in 1881, Alexander Fleming had high aspirations of becoming a doctor. His academic promise was noted when he was just 11 years old, and he received a scholarship to Scotland’s Kilmarnock Academy. At age 20, he entered medical school, hoping to become a surgeon. However, he was convinced by a noted British immunologist, Almroth Wright, to concentrate his efforts in bacteriology, and received the University of London’s 1908 gold medal for top medical student. He became a lecturer at the school until 1914.
• When World War I broke out in 1914, the 33-year-old Fleming joined up to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. While working in field hospitals, he noted many soldiers dying from infected wounds, even though the wounds had been cleansed with antiseptic agents. He improvised a lab in the field to study infection, and demonstrated that the antiseptics such as carbolic acid, boric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, could not kill bacteria deep in the wound, were only effective in treating superficial injuries, and were in fact doing more harm than good. In addition, the antiseptics were diminishing the body’s natural resistance and immunity by killing white blood cells. He devised a system of cleaning wounds with saline that proved effective.
• Following the war, Fleming returned to the university, working tirelessly in the field of bacteriology. In 1928, he took a much-needed month-long vacation from his work on the influenza virus. When he returned to the lab, he found he had left out a Petri dish of Staphylococcus culture, and it had become contaminated with a mold. Upon a closer look, he noted that the colonies of bacteria surrounding the fungus had been killed.
• Determining that the mold was part of the Penicillium genus, Fleming dedicated himself to growing more of the fungus that produced a bacteria-killing substance. He first dubbed it “mold juice,” but renamed his antibiotic penicillin. Results of his work were published, after his research demonstrated that penicillin killed the bacteria responsible for scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, and diphtheria.
• Yet Fleming faced the difficulty of isolating penicillin from the fungus and producing it in high concentrations. He lacked the funding and the facilities to continue his research. In 1940, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford followed up on Fleming’s discovery from 12 years earlier, and isolated and purified penicillin. Led by pathologist Howard Florey and biochemist Ernst Chain, they were able to produce penicillin in large, concentrated quantities after developing a system of growing it. By 1943, it was being mass-produced. The antibiotic was widely used during World War II on the battlefield, transforming the control of infection, with the U.S. Army administering an estimated two million doses per month.
• The United Kingdom’s King George VI knighted Fleming for his research in 1944, and Fleming became Sir Alexander Fleming.
• In 1945, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Fleming and the two Oxford researchers, Florey and Chain, for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases. In his acceptance speech, Fleming stated, “I had a clue that here was something good, but I could not possibly know how good it was.”