The Life of Sir Alexander
Chapter XIV - Sir
In recent years life for me has become a little difficult.Fleming
of 1944 in London was the time of the flying-bombs. These objects, fired
from the Continent, travelled with a terrifying rumble, and slowly enough to
be seen with the naked eye before they reached the end of their trajectory.
At St Mary's as soon as the sirens sounded, a watcher went up on to the
roof, ready to give the alarm if he saw any 'doodlebug' making towards the
hospital. This he did by setting off a bell. A second and a third shrilling
meant 'Danger imminent' and 'Go
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
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,5he
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 cureeverything.
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! isthatthe
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. Sothat,
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 couldreallyhave
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!DoctorFleming
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 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./5I
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
thought that rather odd, so I wrote him a letter, and had it delivered at
the hospital by my secretary, Joan Murray, with strict orders to give it to
Sir Alexander in person. When she came back I asked her: "Well, what
'"I was shown in to Sir Alexander, and he said: 'Why all this
fuss? Who sent you? Mr Churchill?5'No,5I
answered, 'Bebe Daniels.5 5' She left my letter with him, and
half an hour later Sir Alexander himself rang me up. "Come and see me
tomorrow, at one o'clock, at St Mary's."
'I was punctual to the minute. I had expected to find
twenty-four secretaries, eight guards and I don't know what else. Actually,
the only person I saw was a technician in a white overall in one of the
corridors. I asked him: "Where shall I find Sir Alexander Fleming?"
' "At the end of the passage: he's making tea."
'I found him with his sleeves rolled up, making tea over a
Bunsen burner. "Would you like a cup?55he
asked me, and, before I could say yes or no, I had a cup in my hand. Then he
said: "It would interest me to talk on the radio ... Would you like to see
the original culture?"
' "That5d be marvellous!"
'He vanished behind a pile of dishes, found the precious
culture, and showed it me. Then he asked: "What's the programme? What d'you
want me to say?55
' "You will be free to say exactly what you like, sir."
' "I thought that'd be your answer ... Here's what I've
prepared." He read it to me, and it was perfect. Sir Alexander was
marvellous, and had a delicious sense of humour.'
In June, July and August 1945 Fleming made a triumphal
progress through the United States. Tt is clear to me', he said in his
report, 'that they attach a great deal more importance to penicillin in
America than in England.' John Cameron, of the British Mission, was his
guide, and asked him to give press conferences, radio interviews and public
lectures at the various universities, because it would be excellent
propaganda for Great Britain. Fleming acquired a taste for this sort of
thing and did it very well. He visited the factories which were turning out
penicillin, and the laboratory at Peoria which had made success possible. He
was amazed by the tremendous resources available to the Americans. At
Peoria, where he stayed with Dr Robert D. Coghill, he found a veritable
museum where all the varieties of penicillium were displayed. In his
lectures he reminded his audiences that it was English scientists who had
set this immense industry going, that Florey had brought the methods of
production to Peoria, and that America had then perfected the technique of
manufacture, and had provided England with penicillin. It was, he pointed
out, a fine example of mutual aid.
In New York, the producers of penicillin gave a banquet at
the Waldorf, 'to do honour,' said the president, 'and to express gratitude
to the one chosen by Providence to discover and to reveal to the world the
existence and the properties of the most potent weapon yet known to man to
aid him in his war against disease ... We have the closest approximation yet
attained to the fulfilment of the dream of chemotherapy, a substance
incredibly powerful against a multitude of bacterial invaders, and
incredibly innocuous to the tissues of the invaded host.' When he called
upon Fleming to reply, he quoted from the Gospel according to Saint John:
there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool which is called in the
Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
' "In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind,
halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
' "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool
and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the
water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."
'Certainly/ concluded the president, 'it was an angel who
first moved the spirit of Sir Alexander Fleming when he saw, for the first
time, the effect produced on a bacterial culture by a wandering mould, for
the pool thus troubled has cured notonesick
man but myriads of sick men.'
Sometimes the questions put to him on his visit were of a
direct nature. On one occasion at Brooklyn, John Smith, the head of Pfizer
Inc., and at that time the biggest producer of penicillin in the world,
asked: 'Why have you never touched the royalties which would have enabled
you and yours to live as a man should who has rendered such services to
Fleming's reply was: Tt never occurred to me.'
His visit to the Pfizer laboratories had been well publicized
in advance and the benches had all been scrubbed and the instruments
polished in readiness for his arrival. Looking round him at the vast and
gleaming surfaces, on which there was not so much as a grain of dust, he
said: Tf I had been working in these conditions, I should never have found
At one of the universities, a professor of chemistry asked
him: 'Why didn't you complete your work and purify the product?'
'Why didn't you do it yourselves?' answered Fleming. 'All the
necessary information was in the literature.'
At Washington, the press conference irritated this least
irritable of men. 'Were you a boxer when you were a kid? ... If not why have
you gotten a broken nose? ... Who found the dough for your studies in
Nothing, as a rule, ever ruffled him. His gift of silence
stood him in good stead at such moments. When he did not want to answer, he
grunted and stared into the distance. But on this particular day, he
suddenly said to Cameron: 'I've had about enough of this ... let's go.' And
he got up.
One morning he found two newspaper men waiting on his landing
at the Biltmore Hotel just as he was going downstairs to the coffee-room for
'What are you thinking about at this moment? We'd like to
know what a great scientist thinks about when he's going in to breakfast.'
Fleming looked at them with a somewhat solemn expression.
'It's curious you should ask me that. It so happens that I am
thinking about something rather special,'
'What?' asked the two journalists in great excitement.
'Well, I was wondering whether I should have one egg or two.'
John Cameron, himself a Scot, was proud of his companion. He
liked his quiet, dry humour and his kind heart (at Yale, hearing his hostess
say that her maid, a Scots girl, was feeling homesick, he said to Cameron:
'Why shouldn't we go and cheer her up a bit?' and they did), and his utter
lack of self-seeking.
The great American chemical firms, during his stay in the
country, collected a hundred thousand dollars which they gave him as a token
of their gratitude. Fleming said that he could not possibly accept it, but
that it would make him very happy if that enormous sum might be presented to
their laboratories at St Mary's, to be used for scientific research. This
was done, and an Alexander Fleming Fund set up, capital and interest being
put at the disposal of the research-workers.
The high-spot of his American trip was Commencement-Day at
Harvard, on which occasion he was given the high honour of a Doctor's
degree. He had a close bond with this university, which was very dear to
him: the memory of Boulogne where in 1916 and 1917 he had a group of Harvard
men working with him: Dr Roger Lee, Dr Harvey Cushing, and several others.
Six thousand people had gathered in the court where the ceremony was held.
When Dr Conant, the then President of Harvard, said: Tt is a great honour
for me to present Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin,' the
whole audience rose as one man and die ovation lasted for three minutes
during which time Fleming stood quietly before the microphone, his head
slightly bent, stealthily smiling at Cameron. When at last it was possible
for him to make himself heard, he said in his quiet voice:
'I had proposed to tell you a story in which Destiny plays a
large part. It is perfectly wonderful what a part chance or fate or fortune
or destiny — whatever you like to call it — plays in our lives. Decisions
which we make for no particular reason, or for totally inadequate reasons,
or decisions which others make, may have a profound influence on our own
career. Perhaps we are merely pawns moved about on the board of life,
thinking foolishly that we are deciding our own fate ... Let me take my own
career. I was born and brought up on a Scottish farm
He went on to explain that he might well have been a farmer,
had not others — his mother and his brothers — sent him to London: that he
might have remained a simple clerk had not a small inheritance enabled him
to study medicine: that he would never have chosen St Mary's had he not been
a good swimmer: that St Mary's would have turned him out as a simple general
practitioner like many others but for the fact that Almroth Wright had asked
him to work in his laboratory. 'Almroth Wright,' he added, 'one of the great
men of this world, whose work as a pioneer has never been sufficiently
recognized Then followed the story, first of lysozyme, then of penicillin.
He paid homage to Raistrick, 'a great chemist', to Florey, to Chain and to
their collaborators in Oxford, who had made penicillin possible.
'I have been trying to point out that in our Lives chance or
fortune may have an astonishing influence, and, if I might offer advice to
the young laboratory worker, it would be this — never to neglect an
extraordinary appearance or happening. It may be — usually is, in fact — a
false alarm which leads to nothing, but it may on the other hand be the clue
provided by fate to lead you to some important advance. But I warn you of
the danger of first sitting and waiting till chance offers something. We
must work, and work hard. We must know our subject. We must master all the
technicalities of our craft. Pasteur's often quoted dictum that Fortune
favours the prepared mind is undoubtedly true, for the unprepared mind
cannot see the outstretched hand of opportunity.
'Thare is, then, nothing new in my advice to the young. Work
hard, work well, do not clutter up the mind too much with precedents, and be
prepared to accept such good fortune as the gods offer ...'
When he had finished, he was loudly cheered. An old Harvard
man, then President of Smith College, hurried up to Roger Lee and said:
'Roger, Fleming's from Ayrshire: I'm an Ayrshire man: introduce me.'
Roger Lee did as he was asked.
Professor Neilson said: Tm from Ayrshire, you're from
'Aye,' said Fleming.
They shook hands, and that was all. The Scots are a laconic
race, even when they have crossed the ocean.
What useful knowledge had he acquired in the course of this
(a) That scientific research in the United States was
advancing more rapidly than in Europe, because of the status it enjoyed and
of the resources at its disposal. 'The cost of laboratories', he said in his
report, 'is insignificant when compared with the results for both industry
(b) That an American, Captain Romansky, had perfected a form
of delayed-action penicillin (a mixture of salt, calcium and penicillin with
beeswax and peanut oil). This was of great value, since it made possible the
presence of a constant quantity of penicillin in the patient's body without
the necessity of injecting every three hours.
an extended series of researches was paving the way to the discovery of new
antibiotics. One of these, streptomycin, would quite certainly prove
John Cameron, who had not left his side during these two
months, has written: T was completely under the spell of his charm, and our
friendship has become for me one of the things that make life worth living
... I have learned to know Alec really well, and to respect him.'
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