The Life of Sir Alexander
Chapter XI - A new magic
bullet: the sulphonamides
The chemist gives birth to the drug, but the doctor supports
its first steps.
Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Iveagh and others,
St Mary's Hospital was growing. In 1931, The Duchess of York (later Queen of
England, and now Queen Mother) laid the foundation-stone of the new Medical
School. In 1933 the School and the Institute of Pathology and Research were
opened by King George V. The buildings were huge. There was a lecture
theatre and a real library, but many there were who mourned the happy days
when they were pressed for space. It was then, they thought, that their best
work had been done. The famous teas, now held in the great library, no
longer had the same charm as had been theirs in the congested little room
used by the Inoculation Department, where few books were seen upon the
shelves. 'When a man wants to read books,' Wright used to grumble, 'he'd
jolly well better write 'em.' It was only a 'crack', for who, if not he, had
read the great books of the world?
Fleming very soon managed to recreate in his new home the
familiar state of "ordered disorder'. String off parcels, elastic bands and
empty cigarette boxes lay about everywhere. He hated to see his work-table
neat and clean. All the things he needed — instruments, test-tubes and the
rest — had to be exactly where he could lay his hands on them. 'The only
chance I had of sweeping the place out and getting it a bit tidied up was
when he was travelling or on holiday', says one of his old laboratory
attendants. 'When he went away we did as much clearing up as we dared, and
waited for the inevitable question as soon as he got back: "Who's been
moving me?" One of his most frequent phrases was: "Just put that aside: it
may come in useful." '
Games were now in high favour at St Mary's, as Wilson and
Fleming had always hoped they would be. After 1930 the
hospital had as many as five Rugby fifteens which greatly distinguished
themselves, more than once winning the Inter-Hospitals Cup and since then
giving four captains to the All-England side. No matter how bad the weather,
Fleming never missed a cup final, and shouted 'Mary's!' as loudly as any
The renovated Medical School had a magnificent swimming-bath.
In 1935, 1937 and 1938, St Mary's won the Inter-Hospitals Swimming Cup and,
in 1938, the Water-Polo Cup. This delighted the veteran swimmer who was now
Professor of Bacteriology. Needless to say, the tradition of excellence
remained very much alive in the rifle club. Every year there was a match
between students and teaching staff and, with shots like Fleming and
Freeman, the staff ran a very good chance of winning.
One year the professors found a student posted at the
entrance to the range, who in tones of authority was asking each competitor
his age and noting it down.
'What's age got to do with it?'
'For each year over forty we give you a handicap of one
point,' said the student, condescendingly.
This annoyed Fleming and, when his own turn came, he said,
without moving a muscle of his face: 'Ninety.' The student gave a start,
but, not daring to go back on what he had said, wrote down 'Handicap, 50.'
Though Fleming was now a man in middle life, Wright still
treated him like a Victorian father. 'This young fellow Fleming is doing a
lot of good work,' he once said patronizingly to a visitor. In 1928 Fleming
had been appointed Professor of Bacteriology in the University of London. At
the Institute, salaries were still arbitrary, and settled entirely by
Wright. The principal resources of the Institute came from the manufacture
and sale of vaccines. But vaccines and serums did not, alas! solve all
problems where infections were concerned. Fleming had had sad proof of this
in the death of his brother, John. They had been together at a match one day
when an icy south-west wind was whipping the stands. Next morning John
Fleming went down with pneumonia. Two years before he had been saved from a
similar attack by anti-pneumococcal serum. This second onset of pneumonia
belonged to the same type, but this time the serum had no effect. The magic
bullet for use against the pneumococcus had not yet been found. It existed
in the penicillium juice, but could not be purified. Consequently it was
impossible to use it.
Since the brilliant victory of salvarsan over the pale
spirochaete, research in chemotherapy had continued. Ehrlich had
demonstrated an affinity between the doubly nitrogenous dyes and the
bacteria, and their bactericidal power,in
Chemists in the employment of the Bayer company of Germany succeeded in
synthesizing a large number of such products, and entrusted them to one of
their colleagues, Domagk, to try on previously infected mice. In 1932,
Domagk discovered that a certain red dye protected most of the infected mice
against the streptococci. How was this? Probably one part of the dye,
uniting with the substance of the microbes, was destroying its chemical
equilibrium and so causing their death. These results had been obtained with
doses very much inferior to what constituted a danger to the cells of the
body. This seemed to be an important discovery.
Domagk gave the name 'prontosil9to
this miraculous product. One of the first cases treated by him was that of
his own daughter, who had become infected in the laboratory as the result of
handling a culture of streptococci, and was saved by prontosil. For three
years the tests continued in Germany without any publicity and almost in
secret. Finally, in 1935, the discovery was solemnly announced to the
scientific world. Domagk came to England and addressed the Royal Society of
Medicine on the subject. Fleming was present on this occasion with Dr Young
who was much impressed by the figures which Domagk had given. Fleming, on
his way out, said to Holt: 'Yes, but penicillin can do better than that.3The
quantity used by Domagk seemed large to him, and the results less dramatic
than those he had himself obtained. All the same, he had been much
Wright, even after Domagk's visit, remained sceptical.
Chemotherapy still inspired him with an invincible repugnance. It so often
happened that substances about which marvellous things had been promised had
later proved to be ineffective or dangerous. How was it possible, said
Wright, that bacterial infections could be cured so quickly with a drug
administered by mouth. The German statistics? Wright did not believe in
Fleming, however, with the lessons of lysozyme and penicillin
behind him, was more receptive where novelties were concerned. He had no
preconceived ideas on the subject and was prepared to accept the evidence of
experiments, provided those experiments had been faultlessly carried out. To
a friend, Dr Breen, he said: T rather think that this time we really are on
to something. It's called "prontosil", and is put out by the Bayer people.'
Breen, ever a sceptic, asked: 'D'you think you could get me a little?' T'll
do my best,' Fleming replied and, a week later, gave a small quantity of
prontosil to Breen, who tried it on several cases of erysipelas and, much to
his surprise, cured them completely. Yes, itdidseem
as though, this time, the medical profession had 'got on to' something new.
In France, four research-workers — Trefouel, Madame Trefouel,
Bovet and Nitti — at the Pasteur Institute in the department presided over
by the great scientist, Ernest Fourneau, made under his direction a careful
study of prontosil. Their curiosity was aroused by an odd fact: the drug
which was so active in the body did not kill microbesin
This seemed to indicate that the product, when introduced into the human
body, underwent some sort of transformation and that an element, toxic for
bacteria, was in some way released. The same sort of thing had happened with
atoxyl which, as Ehrlich had shown, was changed in the body into a substance
containing arsenic and, therefore, fatal to the trypanosomes.
Systematic study of certain derivatives closely allied to
prontosil revealed the fact that the bacteriostatic activity was in each
case connected with one part only of the molecule: the
para-amino-phenyl-sulphonamide. The researchers of the Pasteur Institute,
when they resumed their tests on this particularly simple molecule, found
that, in fact, it alone was active. The hypothesis formulated by them was
that prontosil when in the body became split, and this was later confirmed
by the presence of para-amino-phenyl-sulphonamide in the blood and urine of
patients who had been injected with prontosil.
This discovery completely altered the conditions of its use.
Prontonsil had been patented by the Bayer company, which meant that sick
people all over the world would be dependent on them for supplies, whereas
sulphonamide, being a known substance, could be manufactured freely by any
makers of chemical products. It had been long in use for the making of dyes
because the extremely stable molecule gave an added fastness to those which
contained it. It 'clung' to the streptococci as it 'clung'to
the material to be dyed.
The medical people in England and in France adopted this new
weapon against infection. 'The chemist', Professor Fourneau has written,
'gives birth to the drug, but the doctor supports its first steps.' The
successes achieved in France, at the Pasteur Hospital, by Rene Martin and
Albert Delaunay deeply impressed the world of medicine. In England the new
product was 'launched', with a very complete study of its effects in cases
of puerperal fever made by two specialists at Queen Charlotte's Hospital,
Leonard Cole-brook and Meave Kenny (it will be remembered that Dr Colebrook
had left St Mary's in 1930). Though Lister, many years before this, had
considerably ameliorated the condition of lying-in by asepsis, the serious
ailments attendant on child-bearing were still fairly frequent in the London
hospitals, where the mortality rate stood at about 20 per cent. In 1936,
Colebrook and Kenny were able to announce that this rate, in over sixty-four
cases treated with prontosil, had diminished to 4.7 per cent. The control
was furnished by the other London maternity cases in which the rate of 20
per cent had not varied. This demonstration appeared to be irrefutable.
Very soon sulphonamide (1162F) was recognized in all
countries as effective, not only against streptococci, but also against
meningococci, gonococci and perhaps certain kinds of filterable virus. The
field of research was widened. The chemists sought to perfect this magic
bullet, on one side by diminishing still further the toxicity of the
sulphonamides (some people did not tolerate them well), and, on the other,
by creating different compounds which might be able to attack still other
Fourneau and his school supplied some remarkable directives
to the investigators by showing clearly the nature of the group of atoms
responsible for the therapeutic activity, the group, that is, which 'clung'
to the bacteria. The sulphonamides multiplied and then, as always happens,
became the object of an excessive craze. The miraculous element pleased the
masses, but, discounting that, the positive effects were considerable. The
mortality rate in cases of cerebrospinal meningitis fell from 70 per cent to
less than 10 per cent. In blennorrhagia complete cure was achieved in ten
days for 90 per cent of cases. It could be said that antibacterial
chemotherapy, as a successor to Ehrlich's antiparasitic chemotherapy, had at
last been born. On the other hand, in regard to certain microbes, the
sulphonamides appeared to be powerless, and the clinician was still left
Furthermore, there had been cases in which bacteria installed
in dead tissues or in pus appeared to be immune to attack. They produced
protective substances which inhibited the effects of the sulphonamides.
Fleming, a bacteriologist of the old school, who, so to speak, lived with
his microbes and knew their habits, had announced, when the sulphonamides
were still in their infancy, that resistant strains would develop if, for
example, the gonococci were exposed to doses of a strength insufficient to
kill them, and, indeed, it was not long before the undaunted gonococci
outfaced the sulphonamides. 'This may be due to one of two causes', said
Fleming. 'Either the more sensitive organisms have been eliminated by the
drug, while the naturally less sensitive have survived, and, in reproducing
themselves, have engendered whole resistant generations: or as a result of
insufficient treatment, a microbe, once vulnerable, has acquired the power
Reticent he might be, and silent too, but he could not help
thinking that one dayhischild,
penicillin, would do better than anything so far found. He was still hunting
for a chemist who might solve the problem of purification. Douglas MacLeod,
the gynaecologist , tells how once, in 1935, when he and Fleming were
lunching together in the canteen at St Mary's, they exchanged views on the
astonishing results obtained, thanks to prontosil, in cases of
puerperal.fever. Fleming praised the new drug, but then, suddenly turning to
his companion, said: 'You know, Mac, I've got something much better than
prontosil, but no one'll listen to me> I can't get anyone to be interested
in it, nor a chemist who will extract it for me.'
'I asked him what the substance was called. He said that he
had given it the name "penicillin". I had to admit that I had never heard of
it. He asked me to go with him to his laboratory, which I did. He showed me
the mould, and actually gave me a specimen, which I still have. We discussed
its possible use in gynaecology, and I suggested that it might be tried in
certain cervical and vaginal infections. It was agreed between us that the
experiment should be made of inserting the substance into the vagina, but
the result was not satisfactory because the mould was quickly killed by the
vaginal discharge.' MacLeod adds that Fleming asked him whether he knew any
biochemist who might succeed, at long last, in extracting penicillin. T told
him that I did know a very brilliant man, Dr Warren, but that he and I were
trying just then, to find a way of determining sex during pregnancy. So
nothing was done.'
Dr Breen tells how one Saturday at the Chelsea Arts Club he
said to Fleming: T read somewhere that you've been talking about your
discovery to a meeting of pharmacists ... that substance, you know ... what
d'you call it?'
suppose you mean penicillin?'
'Yes,' said Breen. 'Does it really do all you say it can?'
Fleming immediately jumped down his throat: 'Of course. If it
hadn't been true, I wouldn't have said it.'
Breen gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder: 'You know I
didn't mean that. I just wanted you to tell me whether you think it will
ever be possible to make practical use of the stuff. For instance, could I
Fleming stared into the distance for a moment and then said:
'I don't know. It's too unstable. It will have to be purified, and I can't
do that by myself.'
The specialist in venereal diseases at St Mary's, Dr
McElligott, though much younger than Fleming, was on very friendly terms
with him. He often asked his advice not only on bacterial questions, but
also on problems of diagnosis and administration of drugs. Fleming, after
all, had been one of the first persons to use Ehrlich's 606 successfully in
the treatment of syphilis at a time when the method was looked upon as
revolutionary. He had followed the progress of some of his patients of those
days and had seen with pride that the cure had been maintained.
Naturally he showed McElligott his famous culture which had
been contaminated by the penicilhum. 'This could do a power of good to your
They had a long discussion on the possibility of getting
penicilli n in contact with the gonococcus. But who would dare introduce a
mould into the urethra at the risk of provoking a secondary fungus
'From time to time', says McElligott, 'he would
ask me to tea in the library of the Institute to meet Almroth Wright, and
listen to that great oracle of Immunology. I remember describing the first
results of treating gonorrhea with the sulphonamides, and Wright's
incredulity at the successes we had had. In a way, he seemed annoyed that an
antibacterial chemical agent should have proved to be so powerful.'
What was Fleming's attitude? He had his own well-proved
methods for studying the effectiveness of an antibacterial drug and a firm
belief in the importance of the natural powers of resistance in the body. He
wanted to know to what extent leucocytes and sulphonamides could combine to
destroy microbes. As opposed to the old-fashioned antiseptics which he had
riddled with criticism during and after the war, the sulphonamides had no
toxic effect upon the leucocytes, or only at concentrations very much in
excess of those necessary for use against microbes. 'Such observations alone5,
he wrote, 'would make it practically certain that these chemicals would be
effective in the treatment of pyogenic infections, and, of course, this has
been clinically established. In the study of new chemicals designed to
combat bacterial infections in the body, investigations of this kind should
never be omitted, and if this were done we should have fewer extravagant
claims and more truth in the advertisements of antiseptic chemicals.'
In a series of papers read to the Royal Society of Medicine,
he showed: (1) That the sulphonamides are specific in their action (that is
to say that they exercise a powerful action on some bacteria but are without
effect on others). (2) That where large numbers of the microbes are present,
the sulphonamides have little or no antibacterial action. (3) That their
action is essentially bacteriostatic and the natural defence mechanism of
the body has to complete the destruction of the bacteria.
The experiments had been carried out with his very simple
equipment: slide-cells, Petri dishes, grooves made in agar. By hollowing out
two parallel ditches, the one filled with a sulphona-mide, the other with
penicillin, and placing perpendicularly to them cultures, more or less
diluted, of streptococci, he noticed that the penicillin proved active in
all cases, whereas the sulphona-mide, though very effective against weak
microbial dilutions, failed to inhibit the non-diluted cultures.
Consequently, penicillin was more valuable, but the sulphonamides had in
their favour the fact that they were stable and could exist in the pure
state. For the moment, therefore, they carried the day.
And what about the vaccines? The St Mary's team continued to
use them, not without success. In an article for theBritish
Fleming drew attention to several remarkable cures obtained with
auto-vaccines. He was looking for a vaccine against influenza and other
respiratory infections. As to the common cold, though admitting that, more
often than not, it is caused by a virus-against which we have no weapon, he
added that in many cases the cold is aggravated by a bacterial infection.
Sometimes, even, the cold is purely bacterial and is due to the temporary
aggravation of a chronic infectious condition. In this latter case the
auto-vaccine could be of help.
Fleming advised a combination of vaccines and sulphonamides.
He reasoned as follows:cThe
effect of the sulphonamides, such as 693 M&B, is bacteriostatic. It
facilitates the action of the leucocytes. But these are also reinforced by
the presence of antibodies. Why not, by means of a vaccine, provoke the
formation of these antibodies? The sulphonamides would be the more
effective.' With his colleagues, Maclean and Rogers, he tried, by means of
an experiment with infected mice, to compare the mortality rates of those
which had been given 693 M&B without vaccine, vaccine without M&B, and,
finally, vaccine and 693 M&B combined. The answer was clear. With a
combination of the two substances, butonlywith
mice were saved.
Experiments of this kind gave great pleasure to the Old Man.
There was still room for immunotherapy. Relations between the Chief and
Little Flem were excellent. Wright continued to pull Fleming's leg. Fleming
took it all in good part and acted in precisely the way he knew was expected
of him. In his turn, he pulled the legs of the young, who were fond of him
because they knew that he was always ready to help them, and also because he
was full of original ideas, no matter how extravagant those ideas might seem
on the surface. Even in his gardening he advocated the most startling
methods. Once, on his way to The Dhoon, he bought a great many bulbs of
flowering plants, and suggested to an aviator friend that the best way of
planting them would be by scattering from an aeroplane. In that way their
dispersion would be governed by chance, said he, and therefore look more
When he sketched unusual plans for his work in the lab, his
colleagues used to say: 'What acardFlem
is!' He never minded their fun, but sat, with a look of feigned solemnity,
at his work-table, well aware that people always laugh at what is new.
'That'll be a success in the long run, you see if it isn't,' he would say.
In most cases he was proved right.
Though he was, above all, anobserver,
he loved rational explanations, provided they were inspired, and confirmed,
by the facts. He was entranced by a most 'attractive' theory put forward by
Fildes to explain the action of chemical medicaments. This theory was that
the chemotherapeutic products have a chemical structure so nearly analogous
to that of one of the substances necessary for the maintenance of the cells
in a state of health that the microbial organism confuses them one with the
other. The microbe, therefore, absorbs the sulphonamides by mistake, and
fills itself so full of them that it cannot, then, take on an additional
load of the substances which it needs if it is to grow and multiply. This is
what leads to its death, or makes it an easy prey for the natural defenders
of the body. It was a brilliant piece of theorizing — if rather surprising.
In 1936 the Second International Congress of Microbiology was
held. Fleming spoke of penicillin and demonstrated before an audience of his
colleagues the experiment of the groove in the agar which the microbes had
been unable to approach. Once again the degree of interest aroused was very
small. He was to recall the occasion eleven years later, at the Fourth
Congress. 'I spoke of penicillin in 1936,' he said, 'but I was lacking in
eloquence, and nobody took any notice ... Here was something of
extraordinary importance, which was published in 1929, and demonstrated at
the Congress of 1936, but which was neglected by everyone for years ... It
may be that inthisCongress
there is something like it. If there is, let us not miss it.*
Before his audience of 1936 he gave a number of other
demonstrations, too, which, though less serious, amused him. Had any
bacteriologist, previous to Fleming, had the idea of using the pigments of
microbes for the purpose of painting? Probably not, but he certainly found
this piece of professional relaxation great fun. Many microbes are brightly
coloured: the staphylococcus is yellow, thebacillus
With this living palette ready to his hand, he proceeded as follows. On a
sheet of blotting-paper he drew hismotif—
a dancer, a mandarin, a Grenadier Guardsman or a flag. Then he laid the
blotting-paper on the agar so that it might become nutritive, after which he
coloured his design with broths of the appropriate cultures. All that
remained was to put the blotting-paper into the incubator. As soon as the
microbes developed, the picture showed up in colour. Sometimes, too, he
constructed small rock gardens, on the soil of which penicillium laid a
thick carpet of moss while the microbial colonies displayed a pattern of
brilliantly coloured flowers.
One day, when Queen Mary paid an official visit to the
hospital, he prepared a little exhibition of these bacterial fancies,
dominated by a superb Union Jack, all in cultures. It appeared that the
Queen was not amused, for she hurried past it. Perhaps she thought the game
lacking in the seriousness appropriate to a learned institution, or maybe
she considered that the microbes were unworthy of the Union Jack. But
Fleming took a childlike pleasure in this strange art, and continued to
produce gardens and ornamental borders which he mounted on cardboard,
framed, and gave to his friends.
About this same time, he asked the Professor of Pharmacology
(today, the Dean of the School of Pharmacy) to undertake the task of
extracting penicillin. 'Unfortunately/ writes Professor Berry, 'and to my
everlasting regret, I did not make an attempt to do so, nor did I see, as he
did, its importance ... I remember the conversation very clearly. He seemed
so completely convinced that his discovery had a great future. I recollect
his prediction that, if only the substance could be purified, it would be
possible to use it systematically in the human body.'
At a somewhat later date, in 1937, he spoke to Dr Laidlaw, a
former worker in the laboratory, about penicillin. 'I have never forgotten
the calm enthusiasm which he showed on that occasion.
"One day," he said, "someone will find a way of isolating the
active principle, and of producing it on a large scale. Then we shall see it
regularly used against the diseases caused by organisms which, I know, it
can destroy." '
Such pieces of evidence could be multiplied indefinitely. We
have only to think of Fleming's inflexible reserve to realize how firm his
conviction must have been for him to have risked being snubbed so often, and
that at a time when so many new experiments were demanding his attention. He
returned again and again to the one he had carried out in 1928. There is
something deeply moving in the spectacle of this shy man with his burning
faith in the capital importance of a piece of research, trying, in vain, to
persuade those who alone could have made its practical application possible,
to see as he did. Not that they deserve blame. Every research-worker has his
own problems which it is difficult for him to abandon in favour of the
problems of others. Three times Fleming had seen a flicker of hope, and
three times he had been disappointed.
As to his master, Almroth Wright, Fleming obviously could not
turn to him for either money or staff. T have the feeling', writes Sir Henry
Dale, 'that if Alexander Fleming had been working in an institute under a
chief willing to accept, and even to find attractive, the possibility of
antibacterial chemotherapy, things might have happened more quickly, and
been taken farther. As Colebrook has made perfectly clear in his biography
of Wright, the Old Man did not want to take an interest even in the
sulphonamides. He just brushed them aside, and treated the discovery as
though it had never been made.' All Wright's instincts were up in arms
against penicillin. On the other hand, it is true that if Fleming had not
been trained by Wright, he would not have devoted his whole life to waging
war against the infections. Perhaps he would not have studied the
antiseptics or the natural defences of the body, and perhaps he would not
have discovered penicillin.
Even at the time of his worst disappointments, he never
forgot what he owed to his old master. One day, when Dr J. Taylor said to
him: Tt was easy for you to impose your ideas: you had a Wright to back you
up,' Fleming replied, in a scarcely audible voice: 'No, on the contrary.' He
said no more, and only smiled,
fondly and indulgently. His capacity for silence was matched
only by his capacity for waiting — and hanging on.
He did hang on, and he did wait. Tirelessly, and with the
utmost clarity, he described again and again what should be done in order to
make quite certain of the value of a chemotherapeutic drug.'The
testing of a chemotherapeutic drug', he said, 'somewhat resembles the
testing which we all had to undergo as students to see whether we were safe
to let loose on the public as medical practitioners. I suggest it should
consist of three examinations, two pre-clinical, the final, clinical.
'The first examination consists of an investigation into the
power of the chemical to kill, or interfere with the growth of, a microbe in
human blood. The easiest way to do this is by the slide-cell method.
'The second examination consists of injecting or otherwise
introducing into the body of an animal the chemical, and then testing the
blood of the animal at intervals afterwards to see if it has an enhanced
'The third or final examination is the cure of infections in
men and in laboratory animals by means of the drug, and examination of its
toxicity to the organism as a whole ...'
Following the discovery of the sulphonamides, scientists the
world over had been looking for a substance which would destroy certain
microbes in the human body. At the Rockefeller Institute Dr Dubos was in
charge of research work undertaken with the object of finding an antibiotic
which would combat the pyogenic germs. His method, which was very ingenious,
consisted in infecting soil with these bacteria in the hope that
microorganisms, in acute competition with them, would develop by selection.
He made a culture from the infected soil and did, in fact,
find there thebacillus
which had an immensely powerful bactericidal effect on numerous and
dangerous microbes. He was able to isolate the active substance, which he
called 'tyrothricin', and established the fact that it was a mixture of two
antibiotics: 'gramicid' and 'tyrocidin'. Unfortunately both were toxic for
the kidneys, but they could effectively be used in local applications.
And so the torch was passed from continent to continent. The
seekers were on the right road.
By 1939 Fleming, now Professor of Bacteriology and Deputy
Director of the Institute, had made for himself an important place in his
speciality. But he was close on fifty-eight and it seemed unlikely that he
would establish any extraordinary discovery before reaching the retiring
age. Of course there was that penicillin of his about which he never stopped
talking, but even he seemed to have given up hope of ever seeing it
After the serious alarm of September 1938 all clear-sighted
men were convinced that war could not be far off. Early in 1939 Fleming,
happening to run into one of his assistants, Peter Flood, stopped him and
said with a smile: 'D'you know what'U happen to the lab. if war breaks out?'
The question came as a surprise to Flood: 'No,' he said.
'Well then, I'll tell you ... Most of the staff will be
attached to the First Aid Service; the rest, you and I among them, will stay
on here. There will be very few of us, and our job will be to carry on with
the work of the lab. until the bombs drive us away.' Flood nodded. 'Don't
worry,' went on Fleming, 'we'll find somewhere to work, and we shall all be
in the same boat.'
Flood replied that that would suit him down to the ground,
and Fleming's face lit up: 'That's what I thought you'd say.'
He had been quite prepared to accept the prospect of ending
his career quietly and silently in the laboratory where he had spent all his
life and then, at sixty-five, retiring to cultivate his garden at Barton
Mills in an atmosphere of esteem and friendship, but not aureoled with
glory. Nevertheless, there are some (Dr Dyson among them) who say that he
seemed to be suffering from some secret sorrow, and that his brevity of
speech and dry humour masked a melancholy occasioned by his almost complete
inability to express himself or to confide in others. The general opinion
was that he was happy in his own odd way. To Professor Pryce he once said
that he couldn't understand people who took their lab. troubles home with
them. No worry of that kind had ever kept him awake. The only thing he
regretted was that he could never really 'loosen up'. But he accepted with
resignation what nature, Scotland and research had made of him.
Dr Craddock, who knew him well, describes his personal form
of happiness in the following words: 'He was something of a dilettante in
his work, not at all the type of man who will go on, month in and month out,
painfully slogging through hundreds of cultures, noting tiny differences,
and then, after five years of extremely careful work, producing a classified
table of variants in the same organism. He preferred something a bit more
spectacular and exciting. He wanted to work at a task he enjoyed doing.
Lysozyme had appealed to him enormously, and penicillin even more. It was an
entirely new world, and he relished the flavour of it.
his daily life what he delighted in were the odd and interesting things. I
remember one occasion when he was driving with me in the country and noticed
a hand-cart of an unusual type, which had been made by a village blacksmith
for the purpose of wheeling heavy churns from a farm to the road where they
were loaded on to a milk-lorry. He asked me to stop, and, there and then,
made a sketch of the object which had aroused his curiosity by reason of the
ingenuity of its construction.
'My son, aged ten, made a metal crane with his Meccano set,
and Flem insisted on taking a photograph of it, because he thought it a
'He was fascinated by the clay ovens which are still used in
our old farm-houses. A faggot of wood is set to burn in them. When the clay
is white-hot, the ash is raked out, and the meat pushed in to cook. The
whole operation is performed by the stored heat of the walls. The simplicity
of the method and the economy in fuel appealed to him.
'When I say that he was a dilettante, I don't mean to imply
that he was like a butterfly flitting from one bright flower to another, but
only that he was selective in the type of work he did. Having made his
choice, he went straight to the heart of the problem more quickly than any
man I have ever known. All his work was most carefully done. There was
nothing superfluous in it. He was remarkably neat with his hands. It is said
that once at St Mary's, when blood-transfusions were a novelty, a surgeon
failed to find the vein in a child, and sent for somebody to fetch Fleming
and he, without the slightest difficulty, made the transfusion into the
external jugular vein.
'He liked to work in the laboratory for six or seven hours a
day, regularly, but he was not one of those who willingly put in twelve
hours at a stretch. He had done it in his early years, at the
time of the opsonic index, but now, fortunately, it was no longer necessary.
He never idled, and got through more in six hours than others would in
twelve. He adored his house and garden in the country and, in summer, would
set off on Friday evenings with a light heart. But he was very glad, too, to
start in again at the lab. on Monday morning, and go on with the work he
loved.5And so the
In August 1939 Fleming and his wife went to New York for the
Third International Congress of Microbiology. There he met Dr Dubos whose
work he much admired. Dubos asked him what had become of penicillin, which
had seemed to be so full of promise. Fleming explained that he had given the
product to one of the greatest chemists in London and had asked him to
purify it; that the latter had said the body was too unstable, and that,
from the chemical point of view, 'it looked as though it wasn't worth much.'In
America, a certain Dr Roger Reid, who worked at the Pennsylvania College of
Agriculture, had read Fleming's papers and decided to make them the subject
of a thesis. He had asked the college authorities for a hundred dollars with
which to carry out some experiments (infecting mice with pneumococci and
then injecting them with juice from the mould and, also, injecting
penicillin into cows suffering from mastitis). This modest request had been
turned down and, when one of the professors had offered to finance the
experiments out of his own pocket, he had been threatened with dismissal!
Fleming also met at the Congress an American doctor, Alvin F. Coburn, who
took a lively interest in lysozyme and in the microbes of the pharynx which
put up a resistance to it.
It was a great source of happiness to Fleming to know that
the researches made so carefully in his tiny lab. at St Mary's, had crossed
the ocean and aroused the interest of far-distant scientists. The month of
August was, as is so often the case in New York, damp and overpoweringly
hot. There were threats of storm. But the most violent was the human storm
now piling up in central Europe. On September 3rd war was declared. Fleming
and his wife immediately took passage for England on board theManhattan.
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