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The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming
Chapter VII - Children and Men


Children attracted him by their natural enjoyment of simple pleasures. In the same way he had a great love of nature, birds, flowers and, of course, trees, and knew a great deal about them, professor cruickshank

On December 23rd, 1915, while on leave, Fleming had got married. When he returned to Boulogne and, after a while, started talking of 'my wife', his friends at first refused to take him seriously. They could not imagine him as a married man. They insisted on seeing a photograph of Mrs Flem. He had one sent. But by scientific minds this proof was not accepted as sufficient, and they had to wait until the war was over before coming to terms with so surprising an idea. But he really and truly had married Sarah Marion McElroy, a trained nurse who ran a private nursing home in York Place, Baker Street. She was its proprietor, and numbered among her clientele several aristocratic patients who, having once had experience of her establishment, would go nowhere else when they were ill.

Sarah, generally known as 'Sareen', was born at Killala, Ballin, County Mayo, Ireland. Her father, Bernard McElroy, owned one of the largest farms in the neighbourhood. He was an admirable man, mad about sports, and very much under the influence of his wife who ruled both farm and family. There were many children of the marriage, including twins — Elizabeth and Sarah. Four of the daughters had been trained as nurses. Sarah started her hospital career in Dublin, In the house of the celebrated surgeon Sir Thornby Stoker, for whom she worked, she met many famous writers — George Moore, W. B. Yeats, Arthur Symons and others. But she took very little interest in literature and none at all in men of letters. What she loved was her profession and an active life.

At the time when Fleming first met her, Sareen was a white-skinned blonde, with pink cheeks, grey-blue eyes — Irish eyes — and an expressive face. Her charm lay in her extraordinary vitality, her manifest kindness, her gaiety and the self-confidence which accounted for her success. She was drawn to the young Scottish doctor who was so serious, silent and temperate — in fact, the very opposite of herself in all respects. It was to her credit that she had divined beneath the outward show of modesty and reserve a hidden genius which at once won her respect. 'Alec is a great man,' she said, 'but nobody knows it.'

It seems probable that she had had to give him a good deal of encouragement before he could bring himself to propose. She long remembered his shyness. He was incapable of expressing his feelings, and never ceased to be surprised that people found it so difficult to understand what he meant. Much later, when she was seriously ill and felt that she was dying, one of her women friends said to her: 'You mustn't die. What would your husband do without you?' 'Oh!' she replied, 'he'll marry again,' and then added with a smile,^but whoever it is, she'll have to do the proposing!' The fact remains that she always knew how to pierce the armour of silence which protected the sensibility of the strange young man, and loved the beautiful blue eyes which held, deep down, a flicker of impish kindliness.

She was Irish and, therefore, a Catholic. But he never showed the faintest sign of aggressiveness in the matter of her religion. He was more than tolerant, and went so far as to say to a woman friend: 'Why don't you take Sareen to Mass?' He thought that Catholic education was excellent, especially for young girls. 'It is an admirable thing for them to have a convent training,' he said, 'it's good for their morals.'

Sareen's twin sister, Elizabeth, the widow of an Australian, not long afterwards married Alec's brother, John, who was as brilliant, gay and loquacious as Alec and Bob were silent. There were not many points of resemblance between the two women. Sareen was strikingly exuberant, Elizabeth calm and rather sad. Sarah, impetuous and a born fighter, argued in the Irish manner — the manner of Shaw and Wright — with a hearty contempt for her adversary. Fleming, for his part, showed neither displeasure nor anger. Like so many Scots, he had to be known through and through before one could be certain whether he was annoyed or pleased. His motto seemed to be: 'Anything for a Quiet Life', and he really was prepared to sacrifice a great deal so long as he was left in peace to get on with his work.

For this work Sareen had a deep respect, and helped it by bringing to her husband a degree of freedom from money worries. She sold her nursing home, and made Alec promise to give up 'practising' so that he could give all his time to research. This showed great unselfishness on her part, for, since their means were slender, it meant that she would have to do without servants and undertake all the household chores. She also condemned herself to seeing very little of her husband, who spent all his evenings at the laboratory. She had to be resigned to leading a fairly solitary existence, and going to the theatre either alone or with friends.

Those of her husband had at once adopted her. In the course of the several visits he had paid to the Pegrams' cottage in Suffolk, Fleming had become greatly attached to that lovely county. His wife and he used part of the money which came to them from the sale of the nursing home in buying a country house, 'The Dhoon', at Barton Mills, a charming village adjoining the one in which the Pegrams lived. The house was old, with a gravel drive lined by shrubs leading to an attractive glazed front door, flanked by stone seats. It carried with it a fair amount of land and a stretch of river which was reached by a rustic bridge leading to an island. There was good rough fishing — pike, perch and gudgeon — and Alec, being a keen observer, soon got to know the habits and hiding-places of the pike.

He and Sareen between them transformed the meadow and orchard round the house into a well-designed garden which eventually showed a fine profusion of flowers. Clearing the ground took several years, but they both had 'green fingers'. They established a large kitchen-garden, two greenhouses, a vine, and peaches which they trained against a wall. On the river-bank they built a boat-house in which they kept a punt.

Dr and Mrs Fleming spent their Week-ends and holidays at The Dhoon. On March 17th, 1924, Sareen gave birth to a son, Robert. It was then that she adopted the habit of settling into The Dhoon during the summer months with her small boy and several nephews. Fleming was left on his own in London, but went into Suffolk every week-end and for the whole of August. He adored his child and would often get up in the middle of the night and tip-toe across to make sure that he was well covered up and was sleeping quietly, just as, so many years before, his mother had done with him in the moorland farm. Later on, he gave up golf entirely in order to play with Robert. Children attracted him because they had his own precious gift of finding happiness in simple things. He had a tremendous love of nature — of birds, flowers and trees — and tasted once again in his country home some of the pleasures of his childhood.

He took a never-failing delight in fishing, swimming and, more than anything else, in gardening. He had an original taste in flowers, his favourites being the giant dahlias and love-lies-bleeding'. He liked sowing or planting out in those months of the year which were not advised by the experts, just in order to prove that the experts were wrong. 'A gardener must never be impatient,' he said. 'Flowers grow in their own time and one does more harm than good if one tries to hasten the process. One can protect them against the weather: one can see that they get food and drink, but it is only too easy to kill them when either is too strong or too plentiful. They are responsive to kindness, but they can also withstand any amount of hard treatment. In other words, they are like human beings.' This heretical gardener had some astonishing successes. He just went up to some improbable tree when it was in full leaf, wrenched off a branch, stuck it in the ground, and lo and behold, it produced roots!' says Marjory Pegram.

His wife turned out to be no less ingenious and freakish than he was. He spoke with admiration of everything she did: her cooking; the things she bought; the things she planted. They loved and respected one another, and both had a taste for old and beautiful objects. They hunted the local antique shops for furniture. The most affable of hosts, they had friends to stay each week-end. Sareen coped with everything. Her energy was well-nigh miraculous. She mowed the lawn, did the weeding, planted the flowers, polished the furniture, cooked the meals. cShe does all the work,' said Alec with a laugh, 'and provides all the conversation.'

Sareen maintained that that was why they got on so well together. He never answered questions and nothing could make him lose his temper. Their visitors found this traditional confrontation of Scotch and Irish endlessly amusing. The river, and a golf-links not far away, provided additional entertainment. In the evenings they played croquet and putted on the lawn, and when it grew dark, continued the game by candle-light, as Fleming had learned to do in the old Wimereux days. But he was never satisfied with ordinary croquet. Keen, as he always was, to contrive a game within a game, he was for ever making new rules which he observed with an almost religious scrupulousness. Staying at The Dhoon was always great fun.

As husband and as father he was still his old imperturbable self. T never knew him to be put out', says Dr Gerald Willcox. 'One day, at The Dhoon, he took me out fishing in a boat with his small son. All of a sudden he hooked a pike. The boy, mad with excitement, jumped up, and fell into the river. Fleming remained seated, his attention divided between the pike, which was fighting like a mad thing, and me, for I was trying to fish the child out of the water; but not for a moment did he let go of his rod ...' Another evening, when there was a fireworks display in the garden, one of his friends, wishing to test his host's legendary impassivity, let off a rocket between his legs. Fleming never turned a hair, but simply said, quite calmly: 'Squib gone off.'

Sareen organized children's parties. Her husband took charge of the games and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He frequently arranged competitions, for which he offered prizes, and always knew what the young people would most like, because he had remained one of them. He certainly felt as happy with them as with grown-ups. Short though his holidays were, he devoted several days every year to running a garden fete for the village. The marvellous times that were had in his garden are still talked about at Barton Mills.

In London he had taken a lease of another charming house in Danvers Street, in the very heart of Chelsea, with which part of the Town and himself the Arts Club already formed a bond. There he entertained several artists who lived in the neighbourhood. Sareen was completely at her ease with them. She had a passion for youth and liked to be surrounded by pretty young women. Not only was she completely without jealousy: she enjoyed looking at them as she enjoyed looking at the beautiful objects for which she had developed a taste. Fleming did more listening than talking, but never gave the impression that he was bored. On the contrary, he greedily absorbed everything that was said, took an amused enjoyment in it, and hoarded it in his memory. But he had a horror of dirty stories and never laughed at them. If somebody embarked on one, he would sit with his eyes shut until it was over.

On all other occasions, he overflowed with innocent gaiety. Even in London he found pleasure in games. He had a special liking for spillikins at which his perfect control of his hands, which never trembled, usually gave him the victory.

The Belgian professor, Gratia, tells how he once spent an evening in Chelsea and was present when Fleming interrupted the conversation of several extremely eminent bacteriologists in order to organize, with absolute seriousness, a game of shove-ha'penny. T have known people who used to get annoyed at this pleasing display of childishness,' he writes, 'but should one not rather regard it as an expression of the strength of character of a people who can shoulder the most formidable responsibilities with a smile, and relapse wholeheartedly into foolery with an appearance of imperturbable gravity?'

Sareen was far from having luxurious tastes, but she loved embroideries, china and old glass, which she collected with the complete approval of her husband. She was not particularly interested in clothes, except when it came to 'dressing up', and was only too delighted when she could make a wrap out of an old evening dress. She trimmed her own hats and exhibited them proudly to her women friends, pointing out how silly it was to spend money on such things. Those who did not know her well, occasionally, in the early days of their acquaintance, showed some surprise at her abrupt manners, which were those of a woman accustomed to command. But they very soon came to realize that behind the outward appearances lay a fund of warm feeling and affection. Though she was a careful housewife, she was very generous not only to her friends, nephews and nieces, but also to those whom she employed. In short, the couple was no less liked in Chelsea than at Barton Mills, and Fleming's private life was happy and uneventful.

The same could not be said of his professional career. In 1921, Wright had made him Assistant Director of the Department. Freeman, who was his senior in age, was deeply affronted. Had not Wright always called him his 'son in science' and said that the succession should fall on him? He later realized that Wright 'moved in a mysterious way'. You never knew when the Old Man would be up to his tricks. But, at the time, Freeman believed in perfect good faith that the appointment had been engineered by

Fleming, who, in fact, had been very much distressed by the whole business. The peace of the lab. was put in jeopardy. Freeman, in order to get away from the team, devoted all his time to the Allergy Service, of which he was now undisputed head since the death of Leonard Noon. He did some remarkable work there, especially on the pollens.

Cliques began to form. Personal passions had torn a breach in what once had been a united scientific family. Fleming's position as Wright's deputy became difficult. He could not endure quarrels, nor could he understand them. The Old Man, who had handed over to him the whole administrative side of the Department, would occasionally, as a result of prodding from one or other of his favourites, interfere and flagrantly reverse instructions issued by Fleming. In silence, the latter did everything he could to conciliate opposing groups, so as to avoid irritating his master, and to do and say nothing that might brush his colleagues up the wrong way. He tried to let his promotion sink into oblivion. Modest, efficient, but fully conscious of his duties, he saw to it that the Department should function properly, and also because of a deeply felt and compelling need that justice should be done. In the interests of a cause which he believed to be good, he was prepared, when necessary, to face the Old Man's anger. Those whom he protected never knew that he had done so, unless accidentally.

Dr Dyson gives a good example of this. He had had reason to think that Wright had treated him in an arbitrary and unfair manner. He complained to Fleming. T had hoped that he would say: "You are perfectly right, Dyson, and I will support you tooth and nail" ' ... But not a bit of it. He listened without saying a word and Dyson went away feeling intensely annoyed. It was only many years later that he learned that Fleming had on that occasion conducted his defence with the utmost vigour, though without saying a word to anyone about what he had done.

Fleming was now installed in a tiny laboratory near the staircase. From the window he could see a pub, the Fountains Abbey, and a street, Praed Street, with its clutter of junk-shops. Dr Todd, a brilliant hand at research and a tremendous worker, shared it with him. It was not long before a newcomer, Allison, joined them. In their company Fleming could forget all about quarrels and devote himself to his favourite game — research. From time to time the cliques would provoke storms, some of them big, others trivial. To all of them Fleming presented a front of passive resistance. The loyal secretary of the Service, Craxton, still remembers the anguished astonishment with which he once said to him: 'Craxton, why must people be so difficult?' But the mood would pass and he would turn again to his work. Allison often used to hear him humming a song. It was always the same song. CI don't remember the exact words, but it was about a "dicky-bird" who was quietly sitting on its nest when a hawk swooped down and tore it to pieces.' No doubt his liking for this melancholy ditty arose from the fact that he saw himself as a quiet little bird continually menaced by more than one hawk. But there was no bitterness in him. The song was his way of laughing at himself, and quickly made him forget his troubles.

During the war, St Mary's had for the first time admitted women students. They had helped to keep the Medical School going in the absence of the men, but when the war was over, their continued presence led to storms. One group of male students demanded their removal. Some of the doctors thought that this would be unfair, and put their names to a counter-petition. One of them, a man named Fry, had been taken on at the lab. on Fleming's recommendation, and he felt responsible for him.

'You are making a great mistake, Fry. The Old Man will never forgive you. He hates women students.'

'I don't think he'll take it too hard. But whether he does or he doesn't, my signature stands.'

Fleming's prudence appeared to be excessive. Wright bore no grudge against the heretic. He was delighted to have such a chance of letting himself go and getting a lot of fun at Fry's expense.

The Medical School could no longer carry on without a considerable subsidy from London University. The buildings were in a bad state of repair and the professors were so badly paid that they could not afford to give much of their time to teaching. By great good fortune, a new and energetic dean, Dr Wilson (later, Lord Moran) was elected. But he had a difficult battle to fight. When the members of the Universities' Commission turned up at St Mary's, all went well until they reached the Pathology and

Research Department. There the ironical Wright told them a few home truths and they took to their heels in terror.

Meanwhile, the brilliant and persuasive dean had managed to convince a few powerful individuals that the training of doctors was becoming a problem of national urgency. One of his friends, Lord Revelstoke, the chairman of Baring Brothers, gave him twenty-five thousand pounds to be spent on St Mary's Medical School. Another of his friends, and a patient of his, Lord Beaver-brook, visited the hospital incognito to draw his own conclusions. He visited the Out-Patients' Department and then went into the small canteen reserved for those awaiting attention.

'How much does a bun cost?' he asked. The answer was: 'Three ha'pence, but if that is more than you can afford, you can have it for nothing.'

This must have pleased Lord Beaverbrook, for some days later he asked Dr Wilson to come and see him.

'I know,' he said, 'that you are thinking of rebuilding your School. How much do you need?'

'Sixty-three thousand pounds.'

Lord Beaverbrook immediately opened a credit for that amount in Wilson's name.

While waiting for the reconstruction to be completed, the dean proceeded to reform the method of recruiting students. Among Fleming's papers there is the following note: 'St Mary's. Went through a bad time in the 'twenties. Students then recruited by examination. Only thing required, being clever with exam, papers. The School did not shine either from the quality of its students or from that of its work. Then new dean established system of scholarships on principle of Rhodes Foundation. We got number of good athletes, and School improved.' Dr Wilson thought that the choosing of students recommended by their headmasters and then interviewed by himself was a better system than examination for collecting a body of men of high quality. 'In this way', writes Zachary Cope, 'the School got a regular flow of students of good intelligence, exceptional character and proficiency at games.' This was fully in accordance with Fleming's doctrine.

At the laboratory life gradually recovered its pre-war rhythm. There was not very much measuring of the opsonic index now. Wright was out of patience with that method and condemned it with a vigour as excessive as his former enthusiasm had been. Such prejudiced judgments were the price that had to be paid for his genius. He was still interested in metaphysical problems. In all my life,' he said, T have suffered from only two ailments, nettle-rash and philosophic doubt. The second is the worse of the two.' He believed more strongly than do most men with a scientific outlook in the possibility of reaching the truth by the use of logic and pure reason. His intellectual approach was not that of an Englishman. He inspired personal affection in all who knew him, but unquestioning confidence only in a few. Not many young foreign doctors now visited his Department.

With Fleming and Colebrook he continued, long after the war was over, his private campaign against antiseptics. In 1919 Fleming was chosen to give the 'Hunterian Lecture', a solemn oration delivered every year in memory of the great surgeon, Hunter. He chose as his subject: 'The Action of Physical and Physiological Antiseptics upon a Septic Wound', and treated it in a masterly fashion. 'There were,' he said, 'during the war, two schools of thought about the treatment of wounds: the one, physiological, which concentrated on the body's natural agents of protection; the other, antiseptic, the object of which was to kill the microbes in the wound by means of a chemical agent ...' He explained once again why Sir Almroth Wright and his disciples belonged to the first of these schools.

Why? Because experience had shown that antiseptics, excellent though they might be for preventing infection, were powerless to suppress it once it was established. This he had often demonstrated, but he now added that, even if antiseptics had been inoffensive (which was not the case) they would still have constituted a psychological danger. 'It is very difficult for the surgeon not to be deluded into the belief that he has, in the antiseptic, a second string to his bow, and, consequently, it will tend to make him less careful in his surgical treatment of the wound. If he knows that he has nothing to fall back on, then, even with the most conscientious individuals, the surgery will improve. Because of this alone, it would be well if the treatment of the wound with antiseptics in the early stage were abandoned and the surgeon left to rely on his skill alone. All the great successes of primary wound treatment have been "due to efficient surgery, and it seems a pity that the surgeon should wish to share his glory with a chemical antiseptic of more than doubtful utility."

But, even though he did belong, with his master, to the physiological school, no one knew better that infection often overcomes the natural defences, that the surgeon is sometimes powerless. Like Ehrlich and many others, he would dearly have liked to find the 'magic bullet' — something which should be as fatal in its effects upon the invaders as it was inoffensive to the cells of the human body.


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