down to the shelter'.
Often at the first warning Fleming and his friend, Professor
Pannett, would rush up to the roof to watch the 'doodle-bug' through their
glasses and compare notes on where they thought it would fall. One day when
Clayden was on watch-duty, he said to Fleming: 'Look sir, this is becoming a
bloody farce. You send me up here to keep people away, and then you come up
yourself. You and Professor Pannett are important men and can't easily be
'That's all right,' replied Fleming, 'just say we're carrying
out an inspection.'
Sometimes it happened that if he was in the laboratory
engaged on an interesting piece of work, he did not hear the siren. His
secretary, Mrs Helen Buckley, describes how, one morning, he was dictating a
difficult letter when the alert went.
'I just looked up, a bit nervously,' she says, 'hoping for
the best, and then presently the second warning rang and I could hear the
wretched flying-bomb grumbling away in the distance getting louder, and then
the third warning rang, and there was the horrible thing coming straight at
us. I could see it from my window, and the sweat began to drip off my face
on to my block. I could hardly hold on to my pencil, and I looked at him out
of the corner
of my eye — not a move! Finally, the thing rattled overhead,
the whole building shook, and the objects on the desk tinkled. When it was
gone, and the fourth bell rang for "All clear", suddenly the Professor came
to, out of his deep thought, looked at me, and said "Duck!" He had not heard
either of the first three warning bells, nor the flying-bomb.3
The military authorities were beginning to permit the use of
penicillin for civilian patients. Bernard Shaw's play, The
Doctor's Dilemma thus
became a reality. Each case had to be considered on its merits, for if the
still far from abundant penicillin were used for a sick person who could be
cured by other means, there was always the risk that there wouldn't be
enough available when it was a matter of life and death.
Sometimes the identity of the patient had an influence on the
decision. Philip Guedalla, the author, for instance, received privileged
treatment. T am,5 he
said later, 'one of the animals into which the life-saving substance has
been injected. I am afraid that in my case it was applied as a
corpse-reviver at a very late stage, but it revived the corpse. If it had
not been for the investigation which Professor Fleming carried out so
brilliantly, I should not be here this afternoon. I wish to testify with all
humility and thankfulness to the treatment which in six weeks can bring a
man out of the shadow into a state in which he is able to resist the efforts
of three Government Departments to amend the text of his book.'
From all sides the relatives of sick persons wrote to Fleming
begging him to help in the cure of all kinds of diseases. He always did his
best to see whether anything could be done, and never failed to answer these
hundreds of letters in his own tiny, elegant and readable hand. But the
simple-mindedness of some of these requests saddened him. T have never said
that penicillin can cure everything.
It is the newspapers that have said that. It does have an extraordinary
effect in certain cases of illness, but none in others ...' The publicity
which he had not sought showed him no mercy and, say what he might, it was
firmly fixed in the lay mind that penicillin was a 'miraculous panacea'. He
knew that, like other remedies, it was specific, that is to say that it
acted on certain microbes and had no action on others.
'That makes things much more difficult for the doctor. No
doubt he would prefer to have a chemical substance which he could use for
all cases of infection. But, since that is impossible, he should not waste
his time, or his patient's, by using the wrong drug on the wrong microbe.
This means that, from now on, every doctor will have to pay a great deal
more attention to bacteriology than in the past. Penicillin was born in the
laboratory, and has grown up in close association with the laboratory.
Penicillin treatment can only satisfactorily be carried out in association
with a bacteriological laboratory.'
He insisted on certain essential ideas. In the first place,
penicillin could act on the microbes only if it were in contact with them,
either locally or in the blood stream. 'Put the champion in the ring face to
face with his opponent, and he will do the rest.' But it was not treating a
boil with penicillin merely to give it a surface application of penicillin
ointment, for that did not establish contact with the centre of infection.
Next, care should be taken not to use penicillin for minor affections — a
sore throat, for instance — because that only encouraged among the microbes
the development of resistant strains. For the same reason Fleming advised
doctors not to hesitate, when dealing with severe cases, to use very strong
doses. There could be no danger, seeing that the product was non-toxic, and
in this way they could avoid the risk of leaving resistant strains in the
organism. It was necessary to wage a blitzkrieg against microbes.
Honours were now showering down thick and fast on this man
who had neither sought nor wanted them, though he felt the same pleasure in
receiving them as formerly in carrying through some experiment better than
anybody else or, at shooting, handing in a better target. Fame could not
spoil him. He was still the same simple, approachable individual about whom,
very often, celebrated foreigners who had come to congratulate him at the
Institute would say: 'What! is that the
celebrated Fleming?' A young American army doctor, who sat next to him at a
football match, spent the whole afternoon trying to find out the name of the
friendly little man with the spotted bow-tie, who had solemnly explained the
rules of Rugby to him. He felt sure he had seen him somewhere. Could it have
been at the Royal Society of Medicine? Driving back to London through the
ruins of the bombed city, he kept thinking of the smiling professor who in
these agonizing days could get so excited over a game. To his friend, who
was at the wheel, he said: 'Tell me, Dave, who was that prof. I was next to?
I've forgotten his name.'
'Why, that's Fleming, the bacteriologist at St Mary's — the
guy who discovered penicillin!'
For the young American scientist, who had seen penicillin
make hay of virulent cases of septicaemia, it was as though a door had
opened, and a legendary figure appeared suddenly on the threshold. T went on
thinking about that friendly professor, but not as formerly. So that,
jostled by the crowd, unrecognized and not wanting to be recognized, cordial
and human, was the man I had met, whose name, for the good he had done,
would rank higher at the Judgment Throne than Hitler would be low for the
evils he had committed. In the most bitter hour of the war, I had watched
the English at play, and had felt their greatness.'
In July 1944 the newspapers published the new Honours List.
The 'bacteriologist at St Mary's' had become Sir Alexander Fleming, and his
wife, Lady Fleming. She showed her pleasure more visibly than he did, not
that he wasn't pleased, but he was still incapable of showing his feelings.
'I am almost sorry,' he said, 'that I'm not Irish, because then I could really have
enjoyed it all.' For many years now, Sareen had shown him how completely the
Irish can accept the most ordinary compliments, to say nothing of
well-deserved honours ... Of course he enjoyed his honours — everyone could
see that: what he meant was, give himself up entirely to enjoyment.
The day before the new Knight Bachelor was to receive the
accolade from the King at Buckingham Palace, he said to Clayden: 'How about
a party tomorrow evening?'
'What about the doings? It's difficult to get stuff these
'Next door,' said Fleming, with a jerk of his cigarette,
'there are five bottles of gin. Lay in some beer, and all the usual what-nots,
and we'll have a party when I get back.'
The investiture took place in the Palace basement, for
security reasons, and Sareen was disappointed. When Fleming returned to the
Institute for tea, he found only eight persons in the library. Many of the
doctors were absent on duty. It happened to be one of the days when Wright
came to London for a few hours, and he was presiding over the gathering as
he had done for the last forty years. But he seemed to be in one of his bad
moods, slumped heavily into an armchair, and did not utter a word until
Fleming turned up. The total, the lowering, silence continued for a few
minutes, then, deliberately turning his back on Fleming, Wright launched out
into a tremendous discourse on the merits of immunization, and the demerits
of chemotherapy which, he declared, was a heresy bristling with danger for
all genuine medical research.
Dr Hughes, who was sitting opposite Fleming, expected to see
some sign of amusement or anger on his face. But it remained completely
impassive. Finally the Old Man had to stop talking from sheer lack of
breath. Craxton, the secretary of the Institute, thinking to ease the
tension, asked Sir Almroth to decide a few administrative questions. The
answer came like a thunderclap:
'Don't bother me with such trivial things! Doctor Fleming
will deal with them!'
Professor Sir Alexander Fleming held out his hand for the
papers, got up and left the table without a word.
Wright returned to the country and the evening was a great
success. The headquarters staff of the hospital was present in full force.
Many toasts were drunk to Sir Alexander, and Sir Zachary Cope, the great
surgeon, who had been a student with 'Flem', read a poem of his own
To Alexander Fleming, Knight
To achieve an outstanding success In one's chosen career
To become a world-famous F.R.S. With a merit so clear;
On a pedestal high to be raised, With no fear of fall;
By the Commons and Lords to be praised, To be talked of by all;
Just to take in a leisurely stride The physician's top rank,
And to dream that Americans vied To put cash in one's bank;
To be praised by the authors who write And the poets who sing;
To be given the title of Knight By our Most Gracious King;
To know well that while still in one's prime One has not lived in vain,
And that none has done more in his time To alleviate pain;
To imagine these Castles in Spain Is a dream of one's youth,
But for you — one need hardly explain — It is less than the truth.
When all had left, Sir Alexander went up to Clayden, his
companion in two wars, and the organizer of this party. Clayden shook his
hand, and said: T'm damned glad about all this, sir.'
Fleming answered: 'That's the nicest thing I've heard this
There was still some beer left, and the two men spent an hour
together, talking over old times at Boulogne and Wimereux. It had been a
Paris was liberated in August 1944. In September it was the
turn of Brussels. Fleming wrote to his friend, Bordet:
Inoculation Department, St Maiy's Hospital, London, W.2 Sept.
My Dear Professor Bordet,
It is indeed great news we have heard today, that once more
the Germans have left Brussels and that you are free of Nazi domination.
Every bacteriologist in England hopes that you — one of the
fathers of this science — have come through the years of sadness with a
stout heart and that you will still have years of fruitful work in front of
you. We rejoice in your long deferred freedom.
With all good wishes
Innumerable invitations poured in upon him, not only from his
own country but from America and the continent of Europe. He was presented
with the Freedom of Paddington, in which district of London he had spent all
his medical life, and in 1946 of Darvel, the small Scottish town in which he
had been at school. Early in 1945 he was elected President of the newly
founded Society of General Microbiology. In his inaugural address, he said:
Other and more distinguished members were asked to assume
this presidency, but they were sufficiently strong-minded to refuse it. But,
true to Scottish tradition never to refuse anything, when it came to my
turn, I accepted, and I was very pleased until the time came when I received
a note from your Secretary saying that I had to deliver the inaugural
He continued in the same half-serious, half-humorous tone.
This Society, he said, would not, like many others, be a platform from which
its members would read papers 'designed to advance their own honour and
glory5, but a place of meeting where bacteriologists, doctors,
industrialists, agricultural specialists, mycologists and biochemists could
come together to exchange information. A discovery of capital importance
might well be born of a simple conversation.
T have the impression5, writes Dr Clegg, 'that few
people realize what a magnificent ambassador for Britain Fleming was when he
went abroad. Modest to the point of shyness, by no means an orator on public
occasions, he impressed those he met with his simplicity and essential
humility. With it all, there was a naive schoolboy delight in simple
' "I hear you are going to the U.S.A./5 I
said to him when I saw him one evening at the Athenaeum.
' "Yes," he said,
"isn't it great? I am going to see the Brooklyn Dodgers!"'
This baseball side interested him as much as all the marvels
of that gigantic country.
Before leaving for America, he was, as befitted his new
eminence, interviewed for the B.B.G. by Bebe Daniels. T had asked the B.B.C.5,
she says, 'whether I could have Sir Alexander Fleming. Their answer was:
"Oh, no! Sir Alexander will never consent to speak on the radio!55
"All the same, I5m going to give him a ring.55
"Sir Alexander never answers the telephone.55