The Life of Sir Alexander
Chapter XV - The Nobel
If it be true to say that a great life is a dream of youth
realized later, then Fleming will be known to history as the happy man who
realized his dream.
1945 Fleming went to France as the guest of the French Government It was his
first European visit since the war had ended. French doctors and
research-workers were all agog to meet him. Penicillin had reached France
during the war by way of Spain and Holland. When a French scientist went to
Madrid in 1942, a Spanish colleague gave him a copy of theBritish
an article on the extraordinary cures it had worked, and a culture. Another
culture had come through Holland. With these the Army had done its best, but
the output was too weak to make production on a large scale possible. In
1944, after the liberation, the English had provided better strains, and
under the direction of three officers of the French Medical Service — Major
Broch, Captain Koch and Captain Netchk — the Military Research Centre had
The intention had been to give him an impressive welcome. He
flew from London on September 3rd, and landed at Le Bourget at fifteen
minutes after noon. Professors Pasteur Vallery-Radot and Jacques Trefouel
(Director of the Pasteur Institute), as well as representatives of the
Ministry of Public Health and of the Army, were waiting for him on the
When he left the aeroplane he saw about fifty journalists
armed with cameras, and as was his custom, kept well behind the other
passengers. Suddenly, one of the reporters approached him and asked a
question. All he could understand was his name and nodded his head, thinking
he was being asked whether he was he. At once, the photographers rushed
forward and 'shot* a gentleman with an impressive beard who, wrote Fleming,
looked a great deal more like a scientist than I did'. When the officials
had identified the illustrious traveller the journalists were surprised
and indignant, for the question which he had answered with an
uncomprehending nod had been: Ts that man with the beard really Fleming?5Having
recovered from their astonishment, however, they photographed the genuine
Fleming and had a good laugh over the incident.
Fleming's diary, September 3rd:Left
10.30. Grossed French coast 11.30. Arrived 12.15. Enormous reception. Had to
broadcast. Driven to Ritz. Lunch. Sacre-Coeur. Pantheon. Notre Dame ... made
Tuesday, September 4th:Finished
speech. Breakfast (no coupons so no butter) ... Gobelins. Saw methods of
weaving tapestry and carpets ... Presented with small piece of tapestry.
Lunch with Kaminker (interpreter). Reception at Acadernie de Medecine. (All
stood up.) President and Oldest Member made speeches. Then champagne and
cakes (like wedding). When came away cheering crowd.
At the Academy of Medicine, he said that it gave him great
pleasure to think that he was going to belong to that august body. T have
been accused of having invented penicillin. No man couldinventpenicillin,
for it has been produced from time immemorial by a certain mould. No, I did
not invent the substance penicillin, but I drew people's attention to it,
and gave it its name.'
Diary, Wednesday, September 5th:In
France only 10,000 Roux bottles a day making penicillin. Great chance for
England to organize at small cost a larger bottle plant or to help with
advice. Send Raistrick and someone from Boots, Glaxo (who can talk French
and who is quite familiar with actual bottle production) ... Interesting
planting device, but growth does not cover surface quickly ... Presented
with x00,000 units.
Was to have seen de Gaulle at 11.30 but postponed till 4.30.
Went to Louvre ... received by Director who showed me round. Pictures,
Sculptures, long gallery, etc.
at Foreign Office. Sat on right of Foreign Minister ... Very good lunch.
Melon, Sole, Chicken, Salad, Cheese, Sweet and Coffee — Chablis, Claret,
Champagne, Brandy. Speeches. Foreign Minister, Minister of Health, Pres. of
Academy of Med. Then I had to reply. 1066 — hundreds of years of
war-history. My life-time peace and Allies in 2 wars. Scars. Penicillin.
to gen. de Gaulle at 14 Rue St Dominique. Trefouel, Vallery-Radot and about
12 others in antechamber. Introduced immediately. Conversation 10 min. Then
others introduced and de Gaulle presented me with Commander of the L. of H.
(Hung round neck and kissed both cheeks.) Said thank you and retired. 5p.m.Went
to Centre de la P&iicil-line de l'armee (near Invalides). On the way
Kaminker went to shop in Palais Royal and bought Commander of L. of H.
with Duhamel at Cafe at end of Boulevard St Michel. About 40 people,
doctors, literary, political, head of trade-unions. Good dinner ... Then had
to reply (all translated by interpreter wonderfully). Got home early
At this dinner, at which Georges Duhamel presided, many
doctors were present, as well as Julien Benda, Paul filuard, Claude Morgan,
Albert Bayet, Le Corbusier. Duhamel relates that when in the course of his
speech he said to Fleming:cYou,
sir, have gone a step farther than Pasteur/ the British scientist exclaimed:
'But for Pasteur I should be nothing!'
Diary, September 6th: 10,
Reception Pasteur Institute ...12.15lunch
Vallery-Radot opposite Duff-Cooper, Billoux and about 40 (sat next Mme
Trefouel). Speech by Vallery-Radot (English), Billoux and another. Replied
(1) Eulogy of Pasteur. (2) Eulogy of Wright. (3) Penicillin. Rules for use.
Production. Fastness. Thanks. Presented Pasteur Medal.2.30.
Visited Pasteur Hospital. Dr Martin ... Has nice wife, speaks English ...
Saw local treatment of carbuncle — very painful. Then to Garches. Ramon
there but apparently only researching — not directing. Bearded man does
micro-cinema only. Saw good one of phagocytosis. Tea at Golf-Club at St
Friday, September 7th: g a.m.Hospital
for Sick Children. Met by Prof. Debre. He gives address and I reply. See n°
of pen. cases. Meningitis good. Pneumo one of 4 died. Osteomyelitis good. If
abscess opens and evacuates then sewn up with needle left in, through which
pen. given ... 11. Claude Bernard. Dr Laporte (Lemierre away). Lung
abscesses treated by injection locally ... Endocarditis few ...5.30.Reception
Hotel de Ville ... Pres. of Academy of Science said going to be a member.
Speeches and Reply.
Saturday, September 8th:...
Delay at aerodrome. Debre there to meet me with inhalation apparatus and
book on painting ... Off at 2 p.m. Home.
It is interesting to know the impression made by this visit
on a French doctor, Professor Debre. 'What struck me in Fleming was an
extreme intellectual caution. It would not be exactly true to say that he
was modest. He was fully aware of his fame, and enjoyed it. But, more than
anything else, he feared going too far in his conclusions. He limited the
extent of phenomena to what he hadseen.
When we showed him the results obtained in France, thanks to penicillin, he
paid more, attention to the failures than to the miracles. "Tell me some
more," he said, "about that osteomyelitis which you didn't succeed in
curing." He wanted to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.'
To Mrs Davis, who had been one of the friends of his youth
and was now living in France, he wrote: 'My week in Paris was indeed
extraordinary ... What a difference from the innocent youth you helped to
educate — and yet I do not believe there is any difference. I now meet all
sorts of high-ups, but it is not really more interesting than meeting
ordinary people — they are just ordinary folk, except that some of them are
a bit conceited.'
The formal reception he had had in Paris was repeated, with
variations, in Italy, Denmark and Sweden. He became an itinerant ambassador
of British science.
To Roger Lee:I
am sorry that I can't get used to all this fuss, but I suppose I have to put
up with it. It is very nice to look back on when it is all finished, but at
the time I cannot get rid of the scared rabbit feeling.
If he was scared, he managed to conceal the fact, and took
this deluge of honours with tranquil dignity. It pleased him to think that
he was passing, not unsuccessfully, the last and stiffest test of all — the
test of fame. It seemed a far step from the Scottish farm and the little
lab. to the academic and royal platforms which he must now ascend. But all
this noise, a bit wearisome though it might bd, he looked on as part of the
day's work. He knew that he had given of his best, that all his life long he
had laboured hard and conscientiously. It seemed to him but natural that the
reward should have come at last, and he adapted himself to the new routine
conscientiously, contentedly, resignedly.
Among the endless letters which piled in upon him at this
time none gave him greater pleasure than that written by the mistress of his
'wee school'. It came from Durban, Natal, was signed Marion Stirling, and
began with these words:
Dear little Alex,
Please forgive me — but you were about 8 or 9 years of age at
most when I knew you, a dear little boy with dreamy blue eyes ... This
little letter is just to congratulate my dear little friend of many moons
ago and to tell him that I have been following his career and rejoicing in
all his wonderful successes. I just have been reading the marvellous story
of Penicillin — and almost feel proprietor. By the way, your wonderful
injections cured a very delicate little grand-niece of mine — by name Hazel
Kindest regards to you andjust
go on as you are doing.
I see that you were honoured by France — a really fine people I found them
In Belgium (November 1945), he beat his own record: three
honorary degrees in two days, at Brussels, Louvain and LiŁge. At Louvain he
delivered a charming speech. The University had conferred, after the war,
degrees on three British subjects — Churchill, Montgomery and Fleming. T did
hope that we could all three come together. Then I should have been able to
listen to a politician and a general, both orators, both leaders of men,
both the idols of their country — and deservedly so — give addresses, and
you would have expected little of me, a simple laboratory worker who sits at
a bench in a white coat playing with test-tubes and microbes.
'But it was not to be. Winston Churchill has come and gone.
Montgomery has yet to come and I am here alone ... My occupation is a simple
one. I play with microbes. There are, of course, many rules in this play,
and a certain amount of knowledge is required before you can fully enjoy the
game, but, when you have acquired knowledge and experience, it is very
pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something that nobody had
To John Cameron[his
guide in the United States]: I had better tell you about my adventures ...
At the end of November I went to Belgium — apparently as a guest of the
Belgian Government for the[sic]paid
my fare and put me up. The evening I arrived I dined with our ambassador.
The next day I lunched with the Prince Regent and then went on to the
University to receive an Honorary M.D. This was a solo performance. There
was a crowded auditorium. Then a solitary chair in front where Queen
Elisabeth sat. Then, on one side there was a throne with two seats where the
ambassador and myself had to sit. You can imagine me in that predicament.
On October 25th a telegram from Stockholm announced that the
Nobel Prize for Medicine had been awarded to him, together with Chain and
Florey. The Nobel Scientific Committee had at first suggested that one half
should go to Fleming, the remaining half to be divided between Sir Howard
Florey and Chain. But the General Committee decided that a division into
three equal parts would be fairer.
On December 6th he flew to Stockholm.
To John Cameron. Isle of Arran:Arrived
10.30 p.m. ... Bed. Off at 8 a.m. to Upsala, and back after dark ... Then
official engagements with a small break for shopping. (You could buy as many
Parker 51s as you like in Stockholm and Nylon stockings.) Then we had dinner
with the British Ambassador (I am getting used to that now). Next day the
prizegiving. Full evening dress with decorations. (I had great difficulty in
tying the Legion of Honour round my neck but it got there and it was the
only one.) This was at 4.30 p.m. Then with fanfares of trumpets we were
ushered on to a platform and sitting before us were the whole of the Royal
Family and thousands of audience. Then trumpets, orchestra, singing,
speeches and receiving our awards from the King. After the reward a banquet
of about 700 where I sat beside the Crown Princess. We all had to say a few
words (I talked about Fortune), then after the banquet we adjourned to a
students' sing-song and dance. Home at 3 a.m. ... Next day the official
lecture and then dinner with the King in the Palace. Early to bed it should
have been, but when we got back to our hotel we adjourned to the bar and
drank Swedish beer for a long time. Among us there was an Argentine woman
poet who got a Nobel Prize but could not stand up to the drink.
Another honour which delighted him was being given the
Freedom of Darvel, the small Scottish town where he had been at school.
Nothing is more pleasant or more rare than to be acclaimed as a prophet in
one's own country. Fleming had travelled by rail from London to Glasgow with
his wife, his son Robert, his brother Bob, and his sister-in-law. He had
invented a new card-game to while away the time. Flags were out in the
streets of Darvel. The Provost and the Councillors were waiting at the town
gate, with reporters and camera-men. 'Prayers. Speeches. Numerous
autographs. A great number of people said they had been at school with me
...' He could not resist the temptation to have a sly dig at his fellow
citizens, and said that the mayor of Darvel would never have heard of him if
he had not happened to go to Cairo. 'Your Provost had visited Cairo and he
had found there that I had achieved a certain amount of notoriety, so when
he came back he proposed to the Burgh Council that they send me a letter of
congratulation. This gave me very great pleasure, and it was the first time
I knew that I had been noticed since I left Darvel ...'
All the enthusiasm with which he had been greeted in the
course of his far-flung travels, all this universal glory, though it had
failed to change his character, had made his manner not so much more affable
(he had always been naturally polite), as less brusque.
The necessity of speaking often in public had given him a
greater ease of manner. His friend Sir Zachary Cope, after hearing him
deliver a short but witty speech, said to him on the way out: 'That was
quite a brilliant effort.' 'Yes,' replied Fleming, T know it was.'
He spoke very well, too, on the day when Lord Webb-Johnson,
President of the Royal College of Surgeons, presented him with the College's
Gold Medal, a high and rare distinction which had been conferred only twenty
times in one hundred and forty-four years. The ceremony took place at a
dinner attended by members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and the
Lord Chancellor. When the speeches were over, his old colleague, Dr Breen,
offered him his congratulations. 'To my surprise,' writes Breen, 'he brushed
them aside: "Come on, for heaven's sake! Let's go and have a game of
' "What? Have they got a table here?" I asked.
' "No, no," said Fleming, "I meant let's go to the Club."
'There was only one club, so far as he was concerned, the
Chelsea Arts, and, accordingly, we set off in our cars to Old Church Street.
This was shortly after the war, when formality in evening wear had not
generally returned. The irruption of Fleming in full rig, with the ribbon of
the Legion of Honour round his neck, and a multitude of decorations flapping
from his coat, into the club had the effect of a bombshell. That, however,
did not prevent us from having our game, and it was the small hours of the
morning before we left.'
He was still devoted to this club, with its great room
painted in light green, the two billiard-tables, the bar, and the free and
easy manners of the painters and sculptors. He went there every evening
about six, looked happily round the familiar scene, and played snooker, as
he played all games, inventing all sorts of extraordinary strokes.
Sometimes, to oblige one of the painters, he agreed to 'sit', but never said
a word in praise of the portrait. To have done so would have run counter to
the unwritten code of all 'Low-landers'. The club members had been staggered
when their silent fellow-member had become a great man. When honours came to
him, several of them offered their congratulations.
'Oh, that's nothing,' he said, and changed the subject.
At St Mary's, where for some years the question of Wright's
successor had been a live issue, Fleming's Nobel Prize settled the
question once and for all. In 1946 Wright retired and
Fleming, unopposed, became Principal of the Institute (this title had
superseded that of Director). But during one of his absences, Wright took
the opportunity to announce the various heads of the services, as chosen by
him, with the result that Fleming never hadhisteam,
and found himself in an awkward position. He felt this deeply, but did not
complain. All he said was: 'That's the way the world is made.'
He had always loved the communal life of a laboratory.
Collective work had made it possible for him at any moment to draw one of
his neighbours' attention to the odd appearance of some culture or other,
and say: 'Have a look at this: I'll tell you the line your research ought to
take.' Only with great difficulty was he persuaded that, as head man, he
must, from now on, live in a room apart where he could conduct important and
confidential conversations. 'Now that you're the Principal, Sir Alexander,'
Craxton told him, 'you must have a lab. to yourself.' He gave in, but
stubbornly set his face against the room ever being allowed to look like an
office. 'No!' he said. Tt shall be a laboratory, and nothing but a
For all who were actively engaged in research, he was an
admirable chief. No matter what the work he was doing, a colleague had only
to knock at his door, which always stood wide open, for him to say at once:
'Yes, come along in!' — and to give his full attention to the tale of
difficulties or discovery. One of his most precious qualities was this
ability to detach his mind in a split second from what had been occupying
it, and to go straight to the heart of the new problem submitted to him. In
three words or so he would sort out the tangle and indicate the line to be
taken, after which he would return to his microscope. A few minutes later
there would be another knock at the door and another young man would
immediately receive the same attention. Sometimes he would follow it Up
with: 'Now you've told me aboutyourheadache,
tell me, what d'you think of this?' and he would point to something that had
aroused his interest. He never made his colleagues, whether seniors or
juniors, feel that they were working under him: they were doing a job with
him, guided by his experience. Dr Ogilvie relates how one day Sir Alexander
took him into his brother Robert's factory to vaccinate two hundred workmen
who had been laid low with influenza. 'Though I was only a very young
assistant,' says Ogilvie, 'he insisted on doing exactly half of the work
himself, sterilizing his own syringes and giving the inoculations.'
He rarely praised a piece of work. His greatest compliment
was something like: 'I suppose it's not bad.' His approval more often took
the form of help and support. He would lend a colleague a hand in writing up
a paper, or would arrange that at a meeting of the Pathological Society — or
some other learned body — some piece of apparatus invented by one of his
young men should be demonstrated. When he thought an idea good, he became
its champion, prepared to fight for it through thick and thin. If he thought
it bad, he demolished it with one word: 'Rotten!' — and that was the last
anyone heard of it.
Many found conversation with him more than difficult. His
interlocutor would wait for an answer to his question, often only to get
'Hmm!' or a groan, or complete silence. 'There you stood with your mouth
open, with the conversation suspended between heaven and earth, not knowing
whether you ought to say something more or make yourself scarce. At other
times he could be charming, and always in the most unexpected fashion.' He
was invariably more friendly in his dealings with simple folk than with the
'big-wigs'. To a young nurse, who had gone by mistake into his office and
been terrified by suddenly finding herself face to face with the Great
Chief, the showed the most exquisite kindness, went back with her into the
corridor, chatting all the while, showed her the way to the laboratory she
wanted, and left her in a state of adoration. These courtesies were never
premeditated, but were wholly spontaneous.
He loved brevity and precision. 'I was always very
enthusiastic over donations to our research funds', writes Craxton (the
secretary of the Institute). 'I once reported the receipt of one particular
gift, and showed him a copy of my proposed acknowledgment, which amounted to
about 100 words. He glanced at it and with a quiet smile, remarked: "That's
a nice effort, Craxton, but the gist of it is that we are very grateful for
his thoughtful donation." "Yes," said I, feeling rather pleased. "Then why
not keep it at that," he said, "and save yourself labour?" '
He had a very special admiration for neat-handed technicians.
'Bacteriologists nowadays/ he said, 'are becoming incapable of doing the
simplest technical jobs for themselves.5All
his life long he had done them better even than the experts and for this
reason had gained their respect. He came down like a ton of bricks on any
research-worker who was too full of his own importance to undertake an
occasional bit of manual labour.
Much of the research-work done at the Institute was inspired
or directed by him. He was extraordinarily generous in his attitude towards
it and refused to put his name to papers which, but for him, would have lost
the greater part of their value. On occasions when he did consent to add his
signature, he said: 'Put my name last, then they'll have to mention all of
you. If you put it first, they'll say, "Fleming and others," and I don't
need that.' Having succeeded beyond all his expectations, he made a point of
leaving the limelight to his colleagues.
Both as scientist and master he was admired by those who
worked with him. As an administrator he came in for a certain amount of
criticism. There were some who said that he had a horror of wrangling and
always chose the fine of least resistance. Craxton, however, who as
secretary of the Institute knew what went on behind the scenes, did not
share this view. 'I remember one occasion when, to satisfy the majority, he
took a decision which was contrary to his own personal feelings. This
worried him very considerably, and he was an unhappy man for weeks. He was
not himself again until, at last, he decided to act according to the
dictates of his own conscience, and reversed the original decision.'
Says Dr Brooks: If he held views different from your own, he
could be a formidable opponent. He never budged once he felt quite sure that
his course of action was the right one.' When he was up against too strong
an opposition, he reserved judgment. Tf you leave a problem alone for long
enough,' he said, 'it will solve itself.'
He was never in a hurry. He kept a tight rein on his
impulsiveness and refused to let himself be influenced by the impulsiveness
of others. He was careful not to become involved in the quarrels and
meannesses which inevitably arise when a lot of men are working together.
'You know', says his secretary, Helen Buckley, 'how jealous and quarrelsome
men of the same profession can be when they are all herded under the same
roof. But I never saw the faintest trace of jealousy in Professor Fleming.
It prowled all round the place, but never had the slightest effect on him.
He was by nature noble and by temperament bigger and better than the greater
part of mankind. Mediocrity in all its forms, all pettiness and all the
small dishonesties of thought and conduct, had no place in him.'
She gives us a glimpse of how he dealt with administrative
matters. 'Someone with a grievance would come in and sit down beside him.
With a cigarette in one corner of his mouth, he would grunt out: "Go on."
The visitor would say what he had to say. The Professor would listen with
the greatest attention, all the while going on with his own work. Then
somebody else would sit down on his other side, and puthiscase.
He could do two or three things at the same time, and do them well. When the
two men had had their say, he would sit for a while turning over in his mind
what he had heard, and then give a reasoned reply to each.'
'He was a man', writes Dr Bob May, 'with whom one could
discuss personal problems without the slightest hesitation. One knew that he
would listen sympathetically, and do his level best to help.' He once
insisted that a scientist who had recently been suffering from nervous
depression should be put on a certain committee. 'It'll do a lot to get him
on his feet again. He will see that people still have confidence in him.'
But he concealed this kind of helpfulness as though it were something to be
ashamed of, and from sheer shyness made more than ever a show of being dour,
reticent and abrupt.
One reason why he was so little known by those who did not
work with him was the queer pleasure he took in deliberately allowing a
distorted picture of himself to be put forward. His 'legend' amused him.
Every piece of baseless information about him published in the newspapers
was as carefully pasted up and filed as though it were strictly true. His
secretary and Dr Hughes kept up to date, at his orders, a whole dossier
entitled 'The Fleming Myth'. He repeated these various imaginary stories
more frequently than anybody else, and saw to it that they did not go out of
At the Institute he never ceased to insist on the
fruitfulness of free research- 'The research-worker must be at liberty to
follow wherever a new discovery may lead him ... Every research-worker
should have a certain amount of time to himself, so as to be able to work
out his own ideas without having to give an account of them (unless he wants
to) to anybody. Momentous things may happen in a man's free time.' He had an
ironical little story, which he loved telling, about a small firm of
chemical manufacturers the directors of which had taken the momentous step
of adding a genuine research-worker to the staff. A laboratory was arranged
for him, divided by a glass partition from the boardroom. For a whole
morning the directors watched, with the utmost curiosity, the white-coated
newcomer at work. Round about midday they could contain themselves no
longer, but went into the laboratory and asked: ''Well, have you discovered
'This thirst for immediate results', said Fleming, 'is by no
means uncommon, but it is extremely harmful. Really valuable research is a
long-term affair. It may well be that nothing of practical utility will
emerge from a laboratory for years on end. Then, all of a sudden, something
will turn up — very different, perhaps, from what was being looked for —
which will cover the costs of the laboratory for a hundred years.' He quoted
the example of Pasteur: 'People said, why all this fuss about a little
dissymmetry of crystals? — to which one might have answered, like Franklin,
what does a new-born child amount to?'
He went back to France in November 1946 for the fiftieth
anniversary of Pasteur's death. All the invited scientists were taken by
special train to Dole. 'In the train', writes Dr van Heyningen, 'we were
joined by a company of young students who had been sent, they said, to act
as guides and interpreters. They kneeled — literally kneeled — at Fleming's
feet, and spoke of him as one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Heavens! — I thought: how terribly embarrassing this must be for poor Flem!
— an ordeal if ever there was one — let's see how he comes through it! ...
Well, he came through it with flying colours, and the way in which he did so
gives, I think, the measure of the man. He was not in the least pompous, but
just his usual self, and spoke in the truculent manner which he sometimes
assumed.' He described to the students the research-work on which he was
then engaged and in which he was a great deal more interested than he was in
his previous discoveries. He enjoyed their attitude of veneration, but
without the least hint of pride. He collected decorations as a schoolboy
collects stamps, delighted whenever an especially rare specimen came his
In the course of the press conference, he reminded his
listeners how Pasteur, in 1876, had observed that a mould from one of his
cultures destroyed the anthrax bacillus and had intuitively foreseen that a
substance of the penicillin type might one day be used in the treatment of
infectious diseases. T have been in France for a week,' he said, 'making a
pilgrimage to all the places where the spirit of Louis Pasteur still reigns:
Dole, where he was born; Arbois, where he spent his youth; Paris, where he
is buried. His body lies in the Pasteur Institute, but his spirit is
everywhere throughout the world where serious work is being done in that
field of microbiology in which he was one of the earliest pioneers.
'He laid the foundations, and laid them so well that they
now, in the short space of the fifty years since he died, support a
superstructure more vast and glorious than even the wonderful genius of
Pasteur could have foreseen.5
And yet, while all the peoples of the earth were inviting him
and showering honours on his head, he knew no truer pleasure than living
with his family in his Suffolk garden. He had the love of family in the
highest degree. 'He was never in better form than when they were all
together, which happened often5, says Mrs MacMillan. He adored
his son, a doctor to be. His wife, now Lady Fleming, was the same simple
person she had always been — faithful to her old friends and not in the
least intoxicated by success. She knew him so well that his silences,
surprising though they might sometimes be, no longer worried her. 'I
remember5, writes Professo* Cruickshank, 'a story told about his
return home after one of his triumphal progresses: how he entered the house,
put down his suitcase on the floor, and said ... nothing at all! His wife
announced dinner. He sat down and ate in silence. There was no conversation.
No doubt he wanted to talk about his trip, but a curious feeling of reserve
made it impossible for him to do so.'
Sareen was still running the two houses with almost no help,
though they were usually overflowing with friends. Life at The Dhoon was
never lacking in those picturesque and unforeseen incidents which were so
dear to Fleming's heart. One Monday morning, when he was taking his guests
to the station in his car after a week-end, he realized that they were late
and that his friends had missed their train. 'It'll be all right!' he
shouted and began a mad race with the locomotive to the next station on the
line. His wretched passengers, flung from side to side, clinging to their
seats, but fully entering into the fun, urged him forward: 'Go on, Flem! Go
on!' The car pulled up with a shriek of tyres and a scream of brakes in the
yard of the next station just as the train was running into it. All joined
in a cry of 'Well done, Flem! Well done!' and made a dash for the nearest
These old friendships and these country pleasures were his
only happiness. He wanted nothing else. When a friend said to him: 'It's a
crying scandal that the nation has not recognized what penicillin has done
for humanity by making you some tangible recognition, a hundred thousand
pounds, for instance, as was done at the end of the war to the victorious
generals,' he replied: 'What should I do with a hundred thousand pounds?
I've got everything I want.'
Never was a man so little spoiled by success. 'I have often
been struck', writes Dr Stewart, 'by the fact that Flem was the living
incarnation of what, in our day, is a very rare thing — a thoroughbred
human-being. There was nothing in him of the mongrel, nor of the artificial.
Until the very end, in spite of so much travelling, in spite of so many
solemn receptions, in spite of everything, he remained in every way the same
young man who, long ago, came to London from his native Scotland.
'One day, I made the acquaintance of a French lady who was
very knowledgeable in the breeding of dogs. When she heard that I was a
Scot, she told me that she had a great friend who was a Scot, too —
Alexander Fleming. She had met him several years earlier, and had liked him,
as a man, long before she had known that he was an eminent scientist. My
reply to this, stupid perhaps, but spontaneous, was: "That's because you are
fond of thoroughbred dogs." She looked startled for a moment or two and then
said: "Do you know, you are perfectly right." '
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