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The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming
Chapter I - In the beginning was Scotland


As a good Scot, I Was in my youth taught to be cautious. Fleming

The Scots are not Englishmen. Far from it. They have often governed England; they have given to Great Britain many of her leading men; they have ranked among her greatest soldiers. But they think of themselves as belonging to a different race, and with good reason. The Scottish nation is a mixture of Celts from Ireland and Wales, of Angles and Scandinavians, of Teutons and men from Flanders. For a long time it had a close connection with France. Scotland, at first Catholic, then Presbyterian, has always refused to adopt the liturgy and hierarchy of the Anglican Church. In the sixteenth century, and again in the seventeenth, in circumstances of the utmost gravity, the Scottish nobles, bourgeoisie and peasants signed a solemn Covenant in which they promised to be faithful to their Church. In the nineteenth century the spirit of the Covenanters was still very much alive. Though Presbyterianism had become less narrow, it was still austere. The Sabbath was strictly observed. Scotland was never touched by the raffish scepticism which had been so prevalent among the English aristocracy of the eighteenth century.

Poverty, combined with severity of manners, produced a race of dour, courageous men. The soil of their country was far from rich, means of communication were largely lacking, the climate was harsh. A Scottish farm could support only a single family. The younger sons left home, first for the University where they lived frugally sometimes off the oatmeal which they took with them in a bag slung over their shoulders, and later for England, where many of them achieved brilliant success by dint of sheer hard work. Their austere and penniless childhood had made them economical. In England their stinginess was a standing joke, as, too, was their language, thick-sown with Celtic words, and r's which they rolled with the noise of pebbles in a mountain torrent. The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman's head.

This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face. Their reputation for niggardliness, too, is only in part deserved. Careful with their pennies they may be, but they are generous with their millions, when they have made them — often at the expense of the English. In their country, hospitality is a noble tradition. Over against the rigid Covenanters must be set the romantic figures who haunt the pages of Sir Walter Scott, their appeal heightened by their picturesque equipment — kilts of varied and famous tartans; bagpipes; the glengarry and the long-haired sporran. The Scots have always been rash and gallant fighters, from the days of Bannockburn to the two world wars. A fire burns deep within them which they do their best to conceal-

It is customary to distinguish Highlander from Lowlander, though, in fact, the two types have, to a great extent, become merged as the result of migrations and intermarriages. The Low-lander, like the Highlander, is emotional, romantic and passionately Scottish, and more than anything else he dreads giving himself away; whence come his stubborn silences and his dislike of exhibiting his feelings even when — especially when — they are strong. This attitude has, no doubt, been intensified by English mockery. We know from Boswell how that eminent Englishman, Dr Johnson, spoke of the Scots. His sallies were, no doubt, the product of a wish to amuse rather than of malevolence: still, jokes at their expense have had the effect of creating in the S<x>ts a definite inferiority complex. That is why they try to make themselves less vulnerable by maintaining an outward show of unconcern and secretiveness. It accounts, too, for something in them which amounts almost to aggressiveness. The Lowlanders are given to teasing. They do not take easily to praise and are fonder of pointing out faults than acclaiming successes. According to their code, eulogy should be preceded by disparagement. They are mentally stiff-jointed, which to some extent explains their liking for whisky, which is a great loosener.

To sum up — a fine race, brought up in a hard school, richly endowed with strange traditions, secretly romantic and cautiously touchy.

Fleming is a common name in Scotland. It was, no doubt, originally given to the weavers and cultivators who fled overseas from religious persecution in the Low Countries. The grandfather of our Fleming, Hugh, was born on the family farm of 'Low Ploughland' in the County of Lanark in 1773. He married the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, Mary Craig. The Craigs had been settled at 'High Ploughland' from far back, as is clear from the fact that a Craig carried the banner of Avondale at the battle of Drumclog in 1679.

Children came thick and fast, with the result that these farming families 'swarmed', some of their members moving to London, others to the neighbouring counties. Hugh Fleming, Alexander's father, had leased from the Earl of Loudoun a holding of eight hundred acres, called Lochfield. It lay close to the meeting-point of three counties, Lanark, Ayr and Renfrew, though it was actually in Ayrshire of which it formed one of the boundaries. It was on high ground in a remote countryside. The nearest house was a mile distant and, since the public road went no farther, few people passed that way. The climate made the growing of corn impossible, but the cultivation of oats and forage and the grazing of sheep and cattle provided a livelihood for the hard-working family. The house was approached over a chain of green hills interspersed with winding streams. Behind it lay a wide expanse of moorland. Dwarfed by these vast and treeless distances, a man should surely come to have a proper sense of the world's greatness and his own humility.

Hugh Fleming had married twice. His first wife bore him five children, one of whom died in babyhood. The names of the surviving four were Jane, Hugh (the eldest son who would inherit the farm), Tom and Mary. The father married again when he was sixty, this time, Grace Morton, a neighbour's daughter, by whom he had four more children: Grace, John, Alexander (known as Alec) who was born in 1881, and Robert.

All that the younger boys remembered of their father was a kindly old man with grey hair who was always ill and spent his time in a chair by the fire. He had had a stroke and knew that he would not live long. He felt a deep concern about the future of his family. Hugh junior and his stepmother ran the farm and Tom had left home for the University of Glasgow, where he was studying medicine. What was to happen to John, Alec and Robert? Would their elder brothers help them? His knowledge of Scottish tradition reassured him on this point: of course they would. His second wife, a remarkable woman, had succeeded in uniting the children of the two marriages in a common bond of affection.

The young people were physically attractive, with vivid blue eyes, frank and open expressions, and a way of looking their fellows straight in the face. Alec, a sturdily built boy, with fair hair, an unusually high forehead and a sweet smile, was his mother's own son. He spent his days with his two brothers, John, his elder, and Robert, known as Bob, who was his junior by two years. All three of them enjoyed complete liberty. A large farm in the heart of the country makes a world rich in discoveries for lively boys with the gift of curiosity. When they were not at school, they explored the valleys and the moors. Nature, their first and best of teachers, developed their powers of observation.

In the two rivers of their countryside, Glen Water and Loch Burn, they fished for trout and learned to know the habits of that wily fish. Loch Burn was little more than a stream, though fed by a strong head of water. It was the type of river loved by trout because it never dried up completely. On the moors there were hares and rabbits in the glens. The boys had no guns, but set off on their hunting expeditions accompanied by an old dog with a good nose who was adept at locating the dense turfs in which the rabbits hid. They slipped their arms in, Alec from one side, Bob from the other, and it was agreed between them that the one who could first lay hold of the animaTs hind-legs should have the right to claim it as his own. This playing at trappers demanded an unusual degree of speed and skill.

They also employed another method which was their own invention. On fine summer days the rabbits left their burrows and sheltered among the bushes. The boys walked slowly over the area which they had decided to beat. When they came upon a motionless rabbit, they pretended not to have seen it and continued to move forward with their heads raised. They had noticed that a rabbit never takes to flight so long as the hunter's eye does not meet its own. Then, just as they were passing the animal, they pounced upon it. No adult could have played that particular game, for his pounce would have been too slow. The boys, however, who at that time were very small, won every time.

There was an abundance of birds on the hills, but partridges and grouse were regarded as sacred. The Earl of Loudoun made as much money out of his shooting rights as he did by farming. Spring brought peewits which nested on the pasture land. The boys had noticed that these birds prefer places where the cows feed to those cropped by the sheep, the reason being that where sheep have fed there are always scraps of wool left on the ground, in which the young birds get their feet caught. The grouse, on the contrary, will venture on to the sheep-runs because their young are stronger.

The taking of a few peewits' eggs was not forbidden, and these the boys could sell for fourpence apiece to the travelling salesmen who sent them to London where they were looked upon as great delicacies. In this way they managed to make a little pocket-money. But this looking for eggs, too, required keen observation and a knowledge of the fact that the mother-bird, when she sees a man" or an animal approaching, runs through the grass and goes some distance from her nest before flying off, in order to conceal the actual position of the nest from the intruder. John, Alec and Bob looked for the nests at a point well away from the place at which the hen had taken flight, and usually found the eggs, of which they took only a few so as not to destroy the species.

The winters were hard. The Atlantic gales swept across the hills and covered the roads deep in snow which had to be shovelled away to enable the carts to fetch the necessary food. At night, when the wind was heavy with snow, this could be noted because of a changed note in its whistling. At such times, as soon as it was light, the mtbors had to be searched for buried sheep. A yellow patch produced by their breathing made it possible for the seekers to find and rescue them. That, too, was one of nature's lessons.

Experiences of this kind taught Alec Fleming how to apply his powers of reasoning to what he observed, and to act in accordance with his observations.

When he grew older, he took part in the annual sheep-shearing day. Seven or eight men did the actual shearing, while another brought the sheep to them and yet another made the wool into bales. Alec helped in the rounding up of the animals. He loved the work. 'The countryman', he once said in later life, 'may have to work harder for his living than a townsman, but he has a man's life. He does not do the same thing day after day.'

He began to go to school when he was five. It was a small place about a mile from Lochfield and served the needs of the children of the surrounding farms. To get there, the boys went down into the valley in all weathers, crossed the river on a wooden bridge without a rail, clambered up the farther bank, and so reached the school. One day, John and Alec, caught in a sudden snow-squall, lost their way. When it was very cold, as Alec later recounted, their mother sometimes gave each of them two piping-hot potatoes to keep their hands warm during the walk and to provide them with a hot meal on their arrival. When it rained, they took a change of boots and stockings slung round their necks. On fine days they went to school barefooted. This caused them no embarrassment, for, out of the twelve or fifteen pupils, nine were Flemings or their friends and neighbours, the Loudouns.

There was only one teacher, a young woman of about twenty. She was in sole charge of a collection of children of all ages. Alec remembered two successive ones, Marion Stirling and Martha Aird. They must have been truly devoted to their calling, for how else would they have been willing to fill the post of teacher in so remote a spot? Discipline was elastic.. After the midday meal, when the weather permitted, the teacher took her class down to the river. So long as the children were enjoying themselves, she conveniently forgot the time. But this did not prevent her teaching from being serious and efficient.

Sometimes an inspector would climb the hill to the moorland school, and question the children. His trap could be seen from a long way off and, if it so happened that the party had lingered by the river when they should have been in school, mistress and pupils hurried back by a short cut, entered the class-room by a window at the back, and were all in their places, the children at their desks, the mistress in front of her blackboard, looking very serious, by the time the inspector arrived. Everything went off well and the mistress was all smiles, which meant that she had been complimented. She taught reading, history, geography and arithmetic.

When the two young Flemings were, respectively, eight and ten, they moved on to the school at Darvel, the nearest town. But all through his life Alec maintained that the better part of his education was what he had learned in the little moorland school, especially in the course of his daily walk to and from it. T think I was fortunate in being brought up as a member of a large family on a remote farm. We had no money to spend, and there was nothing to spend money on. We had to make our own amusements, but that is easy in such surroundings. We had the farm animals, and the trout in the burns. We unconsciously learned a great deal about nature, much of which is missed by a town-dweller.' Boys who live in towns do their studying from books. The young Flemings had something better — a living book.

Though not top of his form, Alec worked well at the Darvel school, to reach which he had to cover four miles, morning and evening. These long journeys on foot made of him in later years a man who scarcely knew what it was to be tired. It was at this time that an incident occurred which altered his appearance by giving him^the flattened nose of a boxer. One day he happened to run rounctthe corner of a wall just as another boy, named Jackson, who was smaller than he was, collided with him. Fleming's nose came into violent contact with the other's forehead. The cartilage was broken. He bled profusely and, when the swelling had subsided, the change in his looks was clearly visible. Since he suffered no more pain, it was not thought necessary to call a doctor. Alec Fleming had a boxer's nose for the rest of his life, but, though it considerably altered him, it did not make him ugly.

When he left the Darvel school at about the age of twelve, plans had to be made for his future. Should he work on the farm or should he continue his education? His mother and his elder brothers decided that he should attend the Academy at Kilmarnock, an important Ayrshire town which boasted a museum, a monument to the poet, Robert Burns, and a celebrated cheese fair. A railway line was in course of construction from Kilmarnock to Darvel, but was not yet completed. This meant that each Friday evening and Monday morning he had to walk the six miles which lay between the farm and Newmiln (the last station on the line). 'That kept me fit', he used to say, 'and did me a lot of good.' The Academy, which was situated in a large building on the top of a hill, was an excellent school where frequent examinations were held which kept the boys on their toes.

'There were fifty or sixty pupils in each class. Not much chance of individual attention. But we worked well. The headmaster was considered to be a pioneer in furthering the study of science in schools. We studied two science subjects each year, mostly theoretical: inorganic chemistry, physiography, magnetism and electricity, heat, light and sound, and physiology.' But this science teaching, according to one of Fleming's contemporaries, was 'primitive', and it would be interesting to know how much benefit Alec derived from, say, the instruction in chemistry which he received at Kilmarnock. The answer to that question is — very little.

This family of farmers attached enormous importance to the education of the young. Alexander Fleming was sent, at different ages, to the best available school in the neighbourhood. The Scots have a sincere respect for learning. Since many of them have to leave their native land and carry on a hard fight for success in London, they know how essential it is to arrive in England with well-furnished minds.

Hugh, the eldest brother, was left to carry on the farm alone* Thomas (always called Tom) had settled in the English capital. It had been his intention to set up in general practice and with this in view he had taken the lease of a house at 144 Marylebone Road, close to Baker Street Station. But patients were slow in coming. He made the acquaintance of a retired ophthalmic surgeon who advised him to specialize in this branch of medicine, and offered to undertake his training. Tom accepted, and somewhat later, when his younger brother, John, joined him in London, the old surgeon suggested that the younger man should learn the craft of optician, and found work for him in a spectacle factory. The choice of firm was unfortunate and it was not long before it got into financial difficulties. The calling, however, was an excellent one.

John Fleming and, later on, his brother Robert, succeeded brilliantly at it.

When it was Alec Fleming's turn, at the age of thirteen and a half, to take the road to London, Tom had just put up a new plate on his front door: 'Oculist.5 His strong sense of family solidarity led him to take charge of this second brother, though his own position was far from being assured. It was the family that organized and controlled his destiny. Hugh and his stepmother were running the farm until such time as Hugh should marry. Mrs Fleming's cheeses enjoyed a great local reputation and sold well. For a time, at least, Lochfield was in a position to subsidize Marylebone Road. Six months later, Robert joined Alec, and the four Fleming brothers lived together in London, unostentatiously giving each other mutual support in a strange world. One of their sisters, Mary, kept house for them.

It was a violent change to leave trout-streams, rabbit-warrens and birds* nests for life in a great noisy city where trees and grass could be found only in a few scattered parks and squares. 1895 was the glorious high-spot of old Queen Victoria's reign. The Underground Railway, at that time running on steam, shook the house in Marylebone Road every ten minutes or so. The streets were alive with innumerable vehicles — hansom-cabs, trams and omnibuses — all horse-drawn. Alec and Robert Fleming explored the capital from the tops of buses, where they sat beside the driver and learned much about the language of this foreign country by listening to the abusive exchanges between competing drivers and the remarks made by them to passing pedestrians. The brothers visited the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum and the various picture-galleries. They were happy in one another's company though, faithful to the traditions of their ancestors, they spoke little except when they wished to draw attention to some object worthy of interest.

In the evenings Tom was the life of the party. He had a passion for competitions of every description — geography, history, science. Each of the brothers contributed a penny to the pool and the winner took all. This was an excellent training for examinations. One night Tom brought home a pair of boxing-gloves, and substituted bouts for games. But Mary decided that boxing brought disturbance into brotherly love, and put the gloves in the dustbin. It is scarcely necessary to point out that evening games and daily excursions had to give way to work. First Alec, then Robert, attended lectures at the Polytechnic School in Regent Street. Tom, soured by the difficulties he had experienced in his attempt to set up as a doctor, had turned his back on the liberal professions, and now pinned all his hopes on business. Consequently he entered his brothers' names in the Commercial Section where everything was taught except Greek and Latin.

When Alec entered the school, he was at first placed in a class suited to his age. But so advanced did he show himself to be that within a fortnight he had jumped two classes, with the result that he found himself working with boys considerably older than himself. Scottish methods now showed to advantage* In the beginning, the Fleming brothers' accent caused a good deal of laughter, and this made thefti very shy. After a while, however, they discovered that, since the English are fundamentally a tolerant race and generous to those who have been unlucky enough to be born on the wrong side of the Border, a slight Scottish accent is an advantage rather than the reverse. It is like some physical infirmity which leads others to show an amused pity for the afflicted- At the same time, there are limits to what can be endured, and the dialect of Ayrshire overstepped all bounds. They did their best, therefore, to correct it, though they never ceased to be markedly Scottish in their talk, outlook and behaviour.

In those last years of the nineteenth century it looked as though the lines along which the family was to move had been laid down for good and all. Tom, whose practice was now growing, had taken a larger house at 29 York Street, where he still found room for his brothers. Mary having married, it was the younger sister, Grace, who now looked after them all. Alec had found employment in a shipping company, the American Line, with offices in Leadenhall Street, and four passenger boats, which, though old, were fairly large. At first he earned the 'princely sum of aid. an hour'. He did his job extremely well. He did not like it, but accepted his fate with silent stoicism. John and Robert were both working in a factory producing optical lenses. Hugh was still at Lochfield and preferred his life there to that of his city-bound brothers who, however, were still devoted to the farm and regularly returned to it at holiday-time for the fishing and shooting. But, though they showed little on the surface, they were inwardly seething with plans and could not have endured the thought of spending their lives on a remote hillside.

In 1900 the Boer War broke out. Less than three years after the apotheosis of the Diamond Jubilee, two small agricultural republics at the far southern point of the African continent were putting up a successful resistance against one of the most powerful countries in the world. The London crowds at first treated the unequal conflict as a laughing matter, singing songs about Kruger and promising to eat their Christmas dinner with him in Pretoria. But after several grave reverses, a wave of patriotism swept the country. Volunteers flocked to the colours. John and Alec, to be followed later by Robert, enlisted in the London Scottish, a regiment largely composed of men of Scottish descent. Young doctors and lawyers served in it as simple privates, and the relations between officers and men were considerably more intimate than was usual in the British Army.

The London Scottish was a combination of regiment and club. It ran a swimming club and the Flemings, who were good swimmers, played in the water-polo team. Alec, too, turned out to be a first-rate shot. His gifts of observation stood him in good stead'on the range. He remained in the ranks and was indifferent to promotion. He had been drafted to CH' Company, the last one of all, he said, which marched at the tail-end of the regiment where neither drums nor bagpipes could be heard. This meant that the men could keep in step only by a great effort of attention and determination,

'The men of "H" Company', wrote Fleming, 'were self-opinionated, egocentric, and obeyed no rules but their own.' The surprise of the battalion was great when CH' Company carried off the 'Celestial', which was a shooting trophy competed for annually. This triumph was partly due to Fleming who, on more than one occasion, attended the National Shooting Week at Bisley. Sporting interests play an important part in all Anglo-Saxon communities. They made of this silent little office-clerk, with the fine eyes and the broken nose, one of the favourites of the regiment.

The number of volunteers was so large that the needs of the Expeditionary Force were greatly exceeded, with the result that most of them never went to the Transvaal at all. Fleming was one of those who stayed at home, and was thus able to enjoy the old family life undisturbed. He went on one occasion with the regiment to Edinburgh. Since there was a shortage of seats in the train, he, being the smallest in his party, was accommodated in the luggage-rack, where he remained for the whole of the journey.

Tom, whose practice was still growing, had moved to a house in Harley Street where all the 'successful' doctors lived. Hugh, at Lochfield, had got himself married, and the 'dowager' Mrs Fleming went south to Ealing, where she kept house for Alec, John and Robert. It was a great joy for the three young men to have their beloved mother with them. Tom, now prosperous, had become reconciled to the liberal professions. He realized that Alec's great gifts had no scope in an employment which did not offer him a future. Why shouldn't he take up medicine? Most opportunely, just as Alec turned twenty, Uncle John died and left him a legacy.

Uncle John had been an old bachelor who had spent all his life farming at 'Low Ploughland'. He left his fortune to his brothers and sisters, or their descendants. It must have been pretty considerable for the place and the period, because an eighth part of an eighth part, which was Alec's share, amounted to two hundred and fifty pounds, Tom advised him to give in his notice to his employers at once, and to use this legacy, with a bursary (should he get one), to the study of medicine. Alec, no doubt, would be starting a bit late, but he never regretted the years which he had spent in a business house. 'I learned nothing academic', he said, 'but I gained much general knowledge, and when I went to the medical school I had a great advantage over my fellow students, who were straight from school and had never got away from their books into the school of life.'

It is true that he had this advantage, but he owed it chiefly to the fourteen years which he had spent close to nature. He had learned, without effort, to use his eyes. The harshness of the climate and the habit of work had turned him into a man who could drive himself hard. As a boy he had, without realizing it, become a naturalist with the habit of noticing everything that went on round him. Fully conscious though he was of his own intellectual gifts, he had remained a cautious, taciturn and modest Scot. Under the surface of his reticence there lay a tenacious love of independence and a simple, sensitive heart. The virtue which he most prized, together with a taste for work, was loyalty. He was determined to be faithful to his family, his regiment and his side: to Scotland and to the British Empire. At twenty there was still something of the child in him, the charm of a child, and also of the boy and the good scholar who wants to do well, and does better than his comrades, to whom his tiny triumphs are the source of a deep and secret happiness.


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