The Life of Sir Alexander
Chapter XVI - Envoy
There is no such thing as a national science, as there is no
such thing as a national multiplication-table,tchekhov
the British Council offered, as it had done before the war, a number of
bursaries to foreign research-workers. Among the candidates was a young
Greek woman, Dr Amalia Cout-souris-Voureka. Her father, a physician who had
studied in Paris and in Athens, was established in Constantinople up to the
time of the outbreak of war in 1914. Then he had to flee to Athens leaving
behind all his belongings, which were confiscated. His daughter, Amalia,
when herself a medical student, married her brother's friend and colleague
the architect Manoli Voureka. During the Second World War, husband and wife,
both of them active members of the Greek Resistance, were imprisoned by the
occupying power. By the time the war ended, their house, the architect's
studio and his young wife's laboratory had been reduced to ruins. Amalia,
cut off as she had been because of the war from all recent scientific
developments, thought of trying to go to England for a period of study. She
was free from family ties. Already for ten years she had to all intents and
purposes been separated from her husband, though she still had a feeling of
affection for him.
The bursaries of the British Council were not awarded by
competitive examination. The candidates were asked to produce diplomas in
science and to offer evidence of their studies and their war-time record.
Those whose names found their way into the final list had an interview with
the Director (then Steven Runciman, the historian). A clear and simple
answer to the questioneWhy
do you wish to take up scientific research?' resulted in the young Greek
woman being given an excellent report. Since, furthermore, her teachers
recommended her strongly, she found herself at the top of all the
candidates. After completing her medical studies, she had specialized in
Until Greece was liberated, nothing had been known in that
country about penicillin. A number of extravagant rumours were current and
that was all. It was said that the English were making use of a small
jelly-fish which had marvellous therapeutic powers. The story went round
that sick persons were made to swallow it, and that, before being digested,
it produced a substance which had the effect of curing septicaemias. After
the war, this new myth had been replaced by information of a more serious
nature. Alivisatos, Amalia's Greek professor, who had himself discovered a
phenomenon of antibiosis, was well acquainted with, and a great admirer of,
Fleming's work. He advised the young woman to apply for a position in the
department presided over by the Scottish scientist. Fleming was approached
and agreed to take her on for a period of six months. On the strength of
this, Amalia Voureka left for London.
She appeared for the first time at St Mary's on October ist,
1946, and was received by Fleming in a tiny office. He asked her what
subject she wanted to work at. 'The viruses,' she said. He replied that he
had no vacancy in the virus section. Would she be interested in allergy? His
voice was .low, his accent Scottish, and the words came through closed lips
from one corner of which a cigarette depended. The young Greek woman, who
did not know English very well, failed to understand the word 'allergy' (as
pronounced by him without its 'r').
He noticed her embarrassment, and took it to mean that she
did not want to study allergy. His face lit up with a kindly smile and, in
the tone of a man asking a favour, he inquired whether she would like to
work with him. She at once said 'Yes,' partly to put an end to this
terrifying interview, but also because she had been struck by the radiant
smile and the sudden gleam in his eyes. It seenied to her as though a mask
which at first had appeared to be impenetrable had, all of a sudden, been
dropped, revealing an infinite kindliness. Why the mask? she wondered. Was
it due to reserve, modesty, prudence or shrewdness?
She realized that, seeing her a little put out, he had wanted
to help, and was the more grateful because she felt terribly alone in a
country which was so different from her own. When she had come into the
room, she had seen a man of small stature with a cold, austere expression.
But there had been a surprising change.
She saw him now as somebody not at all like that — as a
person whose extraordinary eyes seemed to radiate vitality, intelligence and
humanity. Was he really, perhaps, two men — the genuine and the pretended?
At this, their very first meeting, she found fascination in that double
As soon as she had begun to work with him, Fleming introduced
her to Sir Almroth Wright, who still came occasionally from the country to
breathe again the laboratory air. Upon the young foreign student the
impression he made was almost that of some prehistoric mammoth, as much by
reason of his size as from the fact that she remembered having seen his name
in scientific textbooks quoted side by side with those of the giants of the
past — Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich. She was the first woman to be admitted to an
organization which was still dominated by Wright's anti-feminism. It was not
until after the Old Man's death that she was allowed to take her meals at
the hospital or to be present at the famous library teas. Fleming entrusted
one of the younger doctors with the duty of instructing the "new girl' in
the special technical processes used in the laboratory. These were delicate
and demanded, as we know, a high degree of dexterity. It was a matter of
pride with Fleming to show that he was 'handier' than anybody else. She came
to the conclusion, not without reason, that there was a good deal of the
small boy in him.
He frequently called her into the technicians' room, and
showed her how to make micro-pipettes over a Bunsen burner. She found this
difficult, and he laughed delightedly at her failures.
It was not long before he suggested that Dr Voureka, Robert
May and he should embark upon a piece of joint research. He stated the
subject (a titration of streptomycin), laid down the programme of
experiments, and himself drew up the report on results, insisting, as he
almost always did, that his name should come last on the list: "That'll do
you a lot of good, and me no harm.' This attitude, combined with his simple
manners, his kindness, his refusal to take himself seriously, the
extraordinary quality of his intelligence, and his silences, soon made him a
hero in the eyes of the Greek student.
It was marvellous to have a master the door of whose room
stood always open, whom she could see without any difficulty whenever she
wanted to, no matter what time of day it was. He would swing round in his
desk-chair and look at one with an expression of lively interest and eager
expectation. If one asked whether one was being a nuisance, 'No, no,' he
would say, T've nothing to do.' Then one would tell him about some problem
on which one had been chewing in vain for days, and back would come the
answer, without a moment's hesitation, to throw immediate light upon the
subject. 'He could always be relied upon', says Dr Ogilvie,cto
suggest some aspect which had never occurred to you, and an entirely new
series of experiments' — very often on matters which were far removed from
his habitual preoccupations.
One day Amalia Voureka heard him discussing with a colleague
the respective merits of Koch and Pasteur. The colleague preferred Koch.
'Pasteur,' he said, 'did not carry out a sufficient number of
adequately controlled experiments.'
'Pasteur,' replied Fleming, 'was a genius. He could observe
things and, what's more, could measure their value and see their
implications. Any one of Pasteur's experiments was so decisive that it was
worth a hundred of anybody else's. The proof of that is that he could always
repeat it successfully.'
'He, too, I thought,' writes Amalia, 'possesses, like
Pasteur, and in the highest degree, the art of choosing the crucial
experiment and of grasping the capital importance of a chance observation.
The glint in his eyes when he said that showed me that he knew very well how
close, in this respect, he was to Pasteur. But I reflected,SlIso,
that the two men were wholly different in their attitude to themselves.
Pasteur, conscious of his genius, was wholly absorbed in his research. To
interrupt him when he was working was looked upon as a crime. For Fleming
there was a wide world lying beyond the confines of his laboratory. The
appearance of a new flower in his garden was as interesting to him as the
work he might be engaged on. Everything was important, but nothingtooimportant.
There was the same wonder in his eyes as there must have been when, as a
child, he had looked at the vast stretches of the moors, the beauty of the
hills, the valleys and the rivers round Lochfield. In those days he had felt
himself to be an infinitesimal part of nature, and from that feeling was
born his refusal to indulge in self-importance and his dislike of big words.
It was almost possible to say that he was a genius in spite of himself, and
He was for ever starting off on one of those enormous
journeys in the course of which he collected degrees, medals and
decorations. When he got back he would tell Bob May and Amalia Voureka, with
a twinkle in his eyes, about the comic incidents of the tour. The affection
and eager attention with which they listened had the effect of melting his
shyness. When he arrived each morning in the laboratory, Amalia loved to
hear the sound of his young and lively footstep in the passage. His presence
gave her a sense of serenity, security and happiness.
Sir Almroth Wright died, after a short illness, on April
30th, 1947. His going was the source of profound grief to Fleming. Never had
there been men so different. 'Fleming', says Dr Philip H. Willcox, 'was an
easy man to get on with, and to me he always seemed to be unruffled and
utterly lacking in fussiness or strained nerves. He was calm, easy-going,
docile, never detached from the world around him or over-engrossed in his
work. In this respect he was more "worldly" than Sir Almroth Wright, who
gave one the feeling that he was a man with a gigantic brain, concentrated
on the world of bacteria, and caring little for sport or gaiety/ That is
true. Wright was at once an ascetic and an aesthete, an austere,
self-torturing philosopher who despised luxury in any form, and found his
only real pleasure in talking with his intellectual equals about music,
science and poetry. Colebrook in an obituary notice recalled that, to his
disciples, Wright had been not only a scientist, but a friend and a great
'We remember his quiet entry into the laboratory for the
day's work, and his greeting: "Well, friend, what have you won from Mother
Science today?" We remember the simple austerity of his way of life; his
great kindliness and generosity shown to many, known only to a few; we see
him wandering round his garden at the week-end, hoe in hand; the
characteristic twinkle in his eye as he told us of some new discovery about
the shortcomings of the female intellect, or of some neyv word he had
coined; we remember, too, his wonderful gift for conversation, and the great
store of poetry which enriched his mind throughout a long life.'1
For Fleming, Wright's death marked the end of an epoch. His
master had sometimes caused him pain, but he remembered only the immense
debt he owed him. He loved to display to newcomers certain technical
processes, explaining that they had been invented by Wright, with whose
memory they would always be closely linked. No doubt, realizing that he was
now in isolated splendour at the summit of the Institute, he felt much as a
son may feel when, his father having died, it is suddenly borne in on him
that he is the head of a family and standing at the water-shed of the
When the moment came for Dr Voureka's bursary to be renewed,
the British Council sent Fleming a long questionnaire which greatly amused
him. He enjoyed teasing the young woman and kept on coming into the
laboratory to ask her: 'How ought I to answer this?Areyou
good at that? I wonder.3True
to form he said these things with a perfectly serious face. It was
impossible to know whether he was joking or not. But he sent in a eulogistic
report and the bursary was duly renewed.
It was at about this time that he received a letter from an
American (Alsatian by birth), who with remarkable generosity acted as a
patron of scientific research not only in his own country, but in England
and France as well. The name of this excellent man was Ben May. He had
started life working for three dollars a week, but later had founded a
timber business in Alabama which had made him a fortune. He devoted a very
large part of his profits to helping medical research-workers in America and
Europe. In November 1947 he wrote to Fleming as follows:
'You do not know me, but I am one of the many who feels
himself indebted to you, and I should like to show my appreciation in
something more than words ...
'If you ever have a few minutes to spare, you might tell me
if you think there are manygoodresearch-workers
in England who are hampered by lack of fUnds. Likewise, in France ... For
instance, I am not even sure that the Pasteur Institute in Paris has all the
money it needs ... Tell me, please, if you have a phase-contrast microscope.
Please do not hesitate about telling me what you want. In doing so, you will
be helping me ... I have not found any way of taking my money with me, nor
do I feel at all certain that I shall be able to use it on the other side of
the Styx. I shall get more fun out of it if I can employ it in the service
of things that are worth while He concluded by offering a scholarship for
research, the choice of recipient, of course, to be left to Fleming*
Fleming replied that a phase-contrast microscope would be of
the greatest use to him, and then, without asking Dr Voureka for her views
and without even telling her what he was doing, put her name forward for the
scholarship. Only when everything was settled did he let her know, advising
her to refuse the British Council grant in favour of Ben May's offer, which
would last for a longer time.
She was now being frequently invited to the Flemings' house
in Chelsea. This quarter of London, so rich in literary associations, as
well as the charming house, delighted her. She loved its beautiful
furniture, the rare china, old glass, and odds and ends collected with
taste, which were displayed in cabinets. Above all, she found never-ending
amusement in the improvisations contrived by Fleming, who equipped his home,
as he did his laboratory, with anything that came to hand. If, for example,
he wanted an electric lamp on his desk, he attached it to the ceiling-light
in the bedroom with a long flex which hung down to the floor and was then,
without any attempt at concealment, led under the door to where he planned
to use it. People were always tripping over it. An interior-decorator would
have thought it hideous, intolerable and a scandal. But Fleming was
inordinately proud of it, and Amalia found the arrangement quite
irresistible because no one but he in all the world would have thought out,
or put up with, so primitive a contrivance.
She sometimes acted as interpreter between the Flemings and
their numerous foreign visitors. That anyone should have a fluent command of
three languages seemed to Alec nothing less than a miracle. One evening,
when she was translating the remarks of a Greek from Spain, the latter asked
whether he might have a signed photograph of Fleming to take home with him.
She took this opportunity to ask for one for herself. Fleming pretended not
to have heard. His wife intervened: 'Give her one of your photos, Alec.' He
said nothing. Sareen leaned across to Amalia and, with great sweetness, said
that her husband had often spoken about her. He looked embarrassed, but she
insisted: 'Tell her what you have told me.' He grunted, then abruptly took a
photograph, signed it and gave it to Amalia. This portrait she kept beside
her bed. Her friends used to pull her leg about him. 'Is that that great
Viking with the curly golden hair?5But
the jokes glanced off her: she had as much affection as admiration for her
Meanwhile, invitations kept on coming from all over the
world. In 1948 he returned to Paris to be made a member of the Academie
Septentrionale, of which Georges Huisman was President.
Flemings diary, Friday, April 23rd, 1948:No
troubles, customs or other, at Le Bourget. Met by Monseigneur Detrez and
wife of President of Acad. Sept. By car toLutetia
for walk along the river ... A lot of nice things in the shops, especially
antiques, but prices very high ... Taxi to Restaurant Louis XIV in Place des
Victoires. Driver could not find restaurant which is a small one on a corner
... Went upstairs and found about 15 of the Academy folk: churchmen,
literary lights, but no doctors. Excellent dinner ... Had to make short
speech ... Managed to put a dramatist in his place: he had read one of my
speeches and pretended he knew all about me. I told him he was flattering
himself, because even my wife, after 30 years, hadn't managed to do that.
Saturday, April 24th:Walked
for an hour in Luxembourg Gardens. Very gay. Wall-flowers, alyssum and
pansies. Chestnuts in full bloom. Taken to fitudes Carmelitaines, Rue
Scheffer. Academicians and Carmelites. Paul Claudel — old and deaf. Admiral
d'Argenlieu, head of French Navy in England, and now a moijk. Sat between
Huisman (President) and the admiral, who spoke English. Enormous lunch.
Began 1.15, ended 5 o'clock. Speeches galore. Many nice things about me, but
did not understand most of them ...
During his stay in Paris he sat for a sculptor, Baron, who
was to do a medal of him for the French Mint. Some days later he received a
letter from Baron enclosing some photographs of the medal.
Showed to (1) Hughes: remark —tough.
(2) MacMillan: remark—prize-fighter.
(3) Mme Voureka: remark—wild.
(4) Jennings: remark—very good.
(5) S. M. F. [Sarah Marion Fleming]: remark — very good.
Also letter from Director of Mint asking permission to issue
the medal. Replied 'yes\
At the end of May 1948 Fleming and his wife set off for
Madrid, as the result of a very warm invitation. Two great scientists,
Bustinza (of Madrid) and Trias (of Barcelona), had arranged the tour, which
took on the appearance of an apotheosis. Everywhere the deluge of honours
which now formed part of his daily life descended upon him: university
degrees, honorary membership of academies — in Barcelona no less than in
Madrid, decorations and receptions. Never before had he aroused so much
popular enthusiasm, nor so much gratitude from sick persons who had owed
their lives to penicillin. They knelt before him, kissed his hands, gave him
presents. If his wife Sareen had not been taken so ill in Madrid that she
had to have a nurse, the memory of this trip would have been enchanting.
Fleming's diary shows him, as always, interested in everything, and happy.
Barcelona: Thursday, May 27th, 1948:To
the flower-market where we walked about 300 yards. Recognized. Much
clapping. Stall-keepers gave us roses and carnations ... To Town Hall to see
Corpus Christi procession. Mayor and Councillors in evening-dress. Balcony
reserved for us, and, when we appeared, cheering and clapping — most
embarrassing ... After procession more clapping and cheering all the way
back to hotel. Impression that I was Winston or Princess Elizabeth. New
experience. In our rooms enormous wreathes of flowers ... Consul-General
says he is very pleased I came as it will do a great deal to help relations.
It seems to me I am more an ambassador than a lecturer on medicine ...
Vizconde de Guell, art patron (looks like Edward VII).
by important newspaper. Had to answer questions like — 'Is Bogomoletz's
serum any good?' ...cWill
there be another war?' ... 'Why is Spanish science backward?' ... If I were
a more talkative person I should soon be in trouble. At 11, started for
Montserrat ... Meal served by monks in silence, except for a voice chanting
something in Latin the whole time. Prior introduced an old monk to me who
had been cured by penicillin (of septicaemia) ... Sherry, coffee,
benedictine. This benedictine made at the monastery: slightly different from
the ordinary. Happened to have in my pocket a culture of penicillin mounted
in a locket. Gave it to the Prior. He was delighted and put it among the
monastery treasures (with a description which I had to write) ... For dinner
to a small restaurant across the road. Proprietor refused any payment. I
seem to be a hero in Spain.
Photographed with three toreadors. On taking my seat received another
ovation from all round arena — 20,000 people (mass hysteria) ... Back to bed
about 3 a.m.
The number of presents increased. A bootmaker, saved by
penicillin, gave two pairs of shoes, one in crocodile for Fleming, the other
in black and gold for Lady Fleming; a tailor, two suits; a Spanish woman,
miraculously cured, a sable stole; a grateful optician, a pair of
gold-rimmed spectacles. For a hunter of junk-shops it was a marvellous
opportunity. But he had to give thousands of autographs, make a great many
speeches (which an interpreter translated into Spanish), lecture at the
hospital on the use of penicillin, and dine in the open air at La Rosalid,
where Queen Marie-Jos^ of Italy had expressed the wish to meet him.
by the Mayor. A swarm of beautiful young girls did some Andalusian dances
very gracefully. Curious throaty chants of oriental type. Elected Honorary
President of Medical Society of Seville. In evening-dress at 11.30 a.m. for
Academy ceremony. Crowd.God
Save the King.Presidential
speech. Gold Medal. Then my lecture on the story of penicillin read in
Spanish. Lasted three-quarters of an hour ... I went to sleep, or almost.
At Seville, he was given, among other things, a sombrero
which was too small for him. A larger one had to be found.
Goya ... By car to the Maranon house. View over Toledo. Magnificent house
and charming family. Lunch outside. Very pleasant. Today's presents: a
paper-knife (Toledo steel): a doll: an enormous cigar: some books, including
At last, after Cordoba and Xeres, back to Madrid. The capital
had obviously set itself to go one better than Barcelona. Many flowers.
Royal suite at the Ritz Hotel. Dinner at the golf club, with the Duke of
Alba, 'who was charming, and claimed to have dined with me in Oxford — but
he's wrong about that'.
He was decorated with the Grand Cross of Alphonso the Wise,
and given a Doctor's degree by the University of Madrid, where he had to put
on a blue hood and gown, the whole topped by a curious blue cap. A ring was
placed on his finger, and he was given a pair of white gloves. He mounted
the rostrum, preceded by the senior student, and delivered a speech which
his friend Bus-tinza translated into Spanish. When, after his return, Dr
Hughes asked him which of all his Doctor's degrees had pleased him most, he
replied, without a moment's hesitation: 'Madrid ... theygaveme
my hood and gown.'
Taken all in all, it had been an Arabian Nights' journey, but
very exhausting. Neither of them had had a moment's respite. His wife,
already a sick woman when they started, had had to take to her bed in
Madrid. They returned to England by air on June 14th, and in the course of
the next few months Sareen's condition became increasingly serious. She
could no longer go with her husband on the journeys he still had to make as
a result of promises already given.
One very great pleasure for him at this time was the
presentation of the Freedom of Chelsea. In his speech, he spoke of Whistler,
Turner and his beloved Arts Club: Tt would be impossible to imagine Chelsea
without its artists ... Art, using that word in its widest sense, is one of
the genuinely important things. Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the
Exchequer may be prominent figures for a while, but when they pass from the
stage, they are, nearly all of them, forgotten. Only the artist is
immortal.' Fleming was worried at that time about the future of Chelsea
artists. He feared that in the post-war building schemes for Chelsea the
need for studios would be neglected. He therefore took this opportunity of
reminding Chelsea what it owed to the artists.
In 1949 he was made a member of the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences and went to Rome, where he was received in audience by the Pope.
Scarcely was he home again than he sailed in theQueen
the United States where he had promised to be present at the inauguration of
the 'Oklahoma Foundation' for medical research. He had thought at first of
refusing this invitation, pleading his increasing age and the distance of
Oklahoma City, but on further consideration decided that it was his duty to
go. He did not regret having done so, for he metchis old
penicillin friends', was dubbedkiowaby
an Indian chief in full regalia, and made to the Foundation one of his best
The research-worker is familiar with disappointment — the
weary months spent in following the wrong road, the many failures. But even
failures have their uses, for, properly analysed, they may lead him to
success. For the man engaged in research there is no joy equal to that of
discovery, no matter how unimportant it may be. That is what keeps him going
He spoke of the excessive material perfection sometimes to be
found in scientific establishments. This was not the first time he had
expressed his disdain of unnecessary adornments and marble palaces.
If a worker who has been used to an ordinary laboratory is
transplanted to a marble palace, one of two things will happen: either he
will conquer the marble palace, or the marble palace will conquer him. If he
wins, the palace becomes a workshop and takes on the appearance of an
ordinary laboratory. If the palace wins, then he is lost.
We have only to think of the marvellous work done by Pasteur
as a young man, in a Paris attic which was so hot in summer that he could
not stay in it. I, myself, witnessed what, in the early years of this
century, was done by Almroth Wright and his team in two small rooms at St
Mary's Hospital — work which drew to his tiny laboratory bacteriologists
from New York and Colorado, from California, from Oregon, from Canada. My
own laboratory has been described in an American paper as looking like 'the
back-room of an old-fashioned drug-store' — but I would not have exchanged
it for the largest and most luxurious of installations ... I have known
research-workers reduced to impotence by apparatus so fine and elaborate
that they spent all their time playing with a plethora of ingenious
mechanical devices. The machine conquered the man, instead of the man
conquering the machine.
In other words, what the research-worker needs is equipment
which is effective rather than splendid. 'But I should hate you to think5,
he added, 'that I decry good equipment. The different pieces of laboratory
apparatus are, for the research-worker, the tools of his trade, and a good
worker should have good tools.'
As an orator he had made great progress and now his speeches,
simple and solidly constructed, were very effective. They sparkled with
little flashes of the true Fleming humour. 'One sometimes finds5,
he said on one occasion, 'what one is not looking for. For instance, the
technician who set out to find a way to synchronize the rate of fire of a
machine-gun with the revolutions of an airscrew discovered an excellent way
of imitating the lowing of a cow.5And
again: 'During my forty-eight years at St Mary's Hospital, I had built up
the useful reputation of being the world's worst after-dinner speaker, so I
was never asked, to talk. A year or two ago, theObservermade
me the subject of a "Profile" in which they said that I was too fond of the
truth to be a good after-dinner speaker. I commend this statement to some of
the brilliant speakers here.'
There is a story current in Oklahoma to the effect that an
old lady, who had contributed generously to the Foundation, asked him to
what he attributed his success. He is said to have replied: 'I can only
suppose that God wanted penicillin, and that that was His reason for
creating Alexander Fleming.' When this story was told him, he made no
comment, but, since he did not include it in the 'Fleming Myth' dossier, it
is probably true.
several laboratories and was introducedto
When he reached London, he found his wife more seriously ill
than when he had left. To his friends at the hospital he said sadly: 'She's
not going to recover.' When Mrs MacMillan called for news, he opened the
door to her. 'I shall never forget', she writes, 'the look on his face when
he said, "And the most horrible thing about it is that penicillin can do
nothing for her ... When John died it had not been perfected: now it has,
but it is useless in Sareen's case." ' He showed the utmost devotion in
nursing his wife. She died on October 29th, 1949. Her death was a terrible
shock to him. To his old and dear friend, Dr Young, he said: 'My life is
been his companion for thirty-four years. She had been his support in
difficult times, she had helped with all his projects in their country home,
and she was his mainstay in success when, at long last, fame had come to
Immediately after the funeral he went to the hospital and, as
usual, took his accustomed place at the head of the table when tea-time
came. He did not speak of his grief, but looked twenty years older. His eyes
were red. For several weeks he was just a pathetic old man with trembling
hands. He worked longer hours than ever at the laboratory, and kept his door
shut, an unusual thing with him.
He still went every evening to the Chelsea Arts Club and
stayed there later than had been his custom. At home in the empty house he
felt solitary and at a loss. His son was finishing his hospital training in
London. Sareen's twin sister Elizabeth, John Fleming's widow, had a flat on
the upper floor. The two women had been much alike in appearance, but very
different in temperament. Sareen, before her illness, was gay, exuberant and
full of life. Elizabeth, since the death of her husband, had become
melancholic. After the loss of her twin sister, she had long spells of
depression. The loyal Fleming asked her to take her meals with him. For some
time, he often had the company of his son Robert, who lived at home, and of
a young cousin, Harold Montgomery, also a student at St Mary's. But later
Robert left home to live in the hospital where he worked and, in 1951, went
with the Army overseas.,Then Sir Alexander became very lonely. At week-ends,
he visited Radlett where his brother Robert and his sister-in-law welcomed
him. Yet he spent many evenings in the company of an old and ailing woman.
Fortunately for him, there was Alice Marshall, young, intelligent and
devoted, who had kept house for him since Sareen's illness. She did
everything in her power to lighten the atmosphere and to make life for him
at home as smooth and as tolerable as possible.
Work was his only refuge. For some time now he had been
studying, with Dr Voureka, Dr Hughes and Dr Kramer, the action of penicillin
on a certain microbe,proteus
when cultivated in a medium containing a small quantity of
penicillin, went through the most curious changes and assumed fantastic
forms. It is equipped withflagellaor
wing-like filaments which seem to enable it to move about. In the normalproteusthese
filaments cannot be seen, but in the 'monstrous forms', and under the
phase-contrast microscope, they were clearly visible. Fleming studied their
movements with an interest the more lively because a well-known
bacteriologist, Pijper, thought he had proved that these filaments werenota
means of locomotion, but threads of mucus which came from the creatures'
One day he showed Dr Voureka, under the microscope, a
remarkable variant of theproteuswhich
seemed to be furnished with large, spread wings, which it agitated violently
in an attempt to get out of a corner in which it had become wedged. After a
few seconds the movement stopped. Fleming, annoyed by this cessation,
move: 'Get a move on, can't you!' Naturally, there was no response. At that
moment someone called him from a near-by room, and he went out of the
laboratory, saying: 'Make it move!'
It suddenly occurred to her to agitate the mirror which
served to refract the light on to the preparation. To her great joy, as soon
touched by the light-ray, it immediately responded to the stimulus. By
passing her hand up and down between the mirror and the source of
illumination, she could make it beat its wings, or stop it, at will.
When Fleming came back, he was delighted by this small
observation. For weeks he played with the new phenomenon, noting the length
of time occupied by the movements and the period of rest after exhaustion.
Somebody had given him a tape-recorder, which he used in place of an
assistant. He counted out loud, described what he saw, and his words were
recorded by the apparatus. After Sareen's death, during the first forlorn
months of his loneliness, when he used to shut himself away in his
laboratory, people passing the door could hear his hoarse, tired voice
counting. For those who knew him well and loved him, there was something
disturbing in the sound.
But soon he began once more to feel the need to share his
observations with his colleagues. One day, Dr Stewart, a newcomer to the
Institute, suddenly saw his chief's face looking at him through a chink of
the half-open door.
'Are you doing anything you can't leave for a moment?'
'No, sir; certainly not, sir.'
'D'you know anything aboutproteus?'
'Not much, sir.'
'Well, come into the laboratory.'
Stewart did so and saw three microscopes set up, with filters
between them and the several sources of illumination. Fleming passed rapidly
from one microscope to another, moving the filters, observing the effect,
and dictating his comments to the tape-recorder. He asked Stewart to help
him, but very soon the 'whole business', writes the doctor, 'had turned into
something like a clown-act in a circus. We jumped from microscope to
microscope, often colliding. The bacilli moved and stopped, went up and
down, while we said"Start!
— Stop! — In! — Out! — Up! —Down!"and
so absorbed were we that we did not even notice the appearance of a
distinguished visitor, who, opening the door and seeing two men running
round and shouting, must have thought that Fleming and his assistant were
both a bit "touched" ...'
Fleming to Todd:For
the last six months, what little work I have been able to do has been with a
phase-contrast microscope, watching little slide-culturesof
penicillin agar. They roll themselves up like watch-springs, and go round
and round like Catherine-wheels all day long in the same field of the
microscope. We can time their movements, stop them, start them, and observe
how their flagella move. They respond beautifully to stimuli, and I am
beginning to believe that even a lowly bacterium has some primitive nervous
In September 1949 the generous American, Ben May, presented
the Institute with two marvellous pieces of apparatus, so as to help Dr
Voureka to complete the work she was engaged upon — a micromanipulator and a
microforge, devised by a French scientist, Dr de Fonbrune. These made it
possible to handle single microbes with instruments invisible to the naked
eye. Dr Voureka spoke French perfectly, and Fleming sent her to take a
course in their use at the Pasteur Institute.
Dr Voureka to Ben May, September 14th, 1949:I
quite understand your enthusiasm for the French micromanipulator. It is just
marvellous. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we can really make
these little instruments and perform these operations. Monsieur de Fonbrune
is being very helpful. He deals with me from 2 till 7 every day, showing me
how to use his fantastic machinery, and isolating my bacteria. When I think
of the time when I used to say 'if only I could pick this one up'—
and now I see this happening, in no time, I think I am dreaming ... I agree
with you that the range and delicacy of the operations one can do with the
French equipment is far beyond the possibilities other equipments offer ...Ben
May to Sir Alexander Fleming:Dr
Fonbrune told me that Dr Voureka was different from any other woman
scientist he had met: besides being a scientist, he says, she is a person
and a personality.
Voureka to" Ben May, November 5th, 1949:I
don't know whether you heard of Lady Fleming's death. The whole story has
been most distressing to Sir Alexander. So much sorrow should certainly not
come to a man who has given so much of value to humanity. He is being very
brave, working as always. Yesterday, at long last, the equipment arrived. To
my very great delight Sir Alexanderen
thinks it a very ingenious and marvellous machine. I am glad in a way that
it arrived now, because it gave him a distraction from his worries ...
Fortunately, he still retained his taste for lovely toys. In
spite of his profession of faith at Oklahoma City, the phase-contrast
microscope, the micromanipulator and the tape-recorder gave him great joy.
In addition to his research-work, travelling did much to help
him to recover from the grievous shock he had had. He spent quite a
considerable part of his life at that time in aeroplanes and liners.January
to receive the Addingham Medal.March:To
the United States in theQueen
to give a lecture on the new antibiotics.August:Brazil.September:Rome.November:Brussels,
where he had to make a speech in the name of the foreign scientists on the
occasion of the eightieth birthday of the Belgian bacteriologist, Jules
Bordet, for whom he felt a great affection. To give pleasure to Bordet, he
wished to speak in French. At his request, Amalia translated and recorded
the speech, and this busy man spent hours in learning it by heart, and
trying to pronounce each word in an intelligible manner. At the University
of Brussels, in the presence of Queen Elisabeth, he delivered his oration,
and praised in Bordet the qualities he most admired:
The essence of Bordet's work is simplicity — simplicity of
attitude and simplicity of technique ... He has always shown himself to be
very sceptical of fancy theories insufficiently supported by experimental
facts. He has worked away and produced new facts which have helped us all.
It is not given to everybody to be world-famous in science for so long. But
it has not made any difference to Jules Bordet. He is still the simple
investigator he always was. Bordet is, by nationality, a Belgian, but
medicine is not national. There is, fortunately, a free exchange of medical
knowledge, and Jules Bordet is international.
Sometimes, when he was in London, he invited his 'little
G'eek f'iend' to go with him to the Royal Academy banquet, or to other
dinners and receptions. Since the house in which she was living was on the
way from the laboratory to Danvers Street, he took her home every evening in
his car. He left St Mary's at half-past five, dropped her, and went on to
the Chelsea Arts Club. They both felt happy when they were together, and
talked of everything under the sun with complete mutual understanding, as
they drove through Hyde Park.
In mid-summer 1950 he took her to a dinner given by the
Worshipful Company of Dyers in the City. This very ancient company owns
one-third of the swans on the Thames, one-third belonging to the Crown, and
the remaining third to the Vintners' Company. Each year, at a solemn
banquet, a number of young cygnets are presented on a silver dish. Amalia
saw, with him, for the first time, at the mid-summer ladies' night dinner,
the ceremony of the loving-cup which is passed up and down the tables. She
found it all very novel and charming. It was long since she had seen Fleming
so gay. He seemed to be happy at having her for partner.
In December, while Fleming was away in Stockholm for a
meeting of the Nobel Institute, she went back to Greece for the Christmas
Dr Voureka to Ben May:My
only regret is that I shall be parted from my very dear laboratory at St
During this holiday absence she was asked whether she would
accept the post of head of the laboratory at the Evangelismos Hospital in
Athens. This was the most important hospital in the city and the one in
which she had done part of her training. The idea of returning to it as the
head of a department was tempting. She wrote to Fleming to tell him of the
proposal. He replied as follows:
January 23rd, 1951
Dear Dr Voureka,
I was very glad to get your letter and to hear of your
adventures. Congratulations on your new research Institute. I knew that you
would find a research job one day, but a whole Institute is much better.
You will have got theLancetby
this time. They have done you well. I have sent a copy to Ben May to show
him that he is getting his money's worth.
Your bench still awaits you. . ,
just published a report on the work done by Dr Amalia Voureka on the
mutations of certain microbes. This also formed the subject of the
editorial. She was faintly disappointed by this letter. Not a word of
advice. She thought she could detect a note of irony in his reference to 'a
whole Institute'. She had spoken only of a laboratory. And why 'yourbenchstill
awaits you'? Was it an expression of regret, or a desire to keep her? She
thought so for a moment, then reproached herself for an excess of
imagination. In any case, the final appointment depended, in Greece, on the
decision of the council, which would not be in session for some time. While
waiting for it, she returned to London and went on with her work.
In April 1951 aunescocongress
took him to Pakistan. In Karachi, as always, he was asked to speak in
public. The subject was given to him: 'How the children of Pakistan can
become the research-workers of tomorrow'. He rapidly jotted down a few
All of us, in our ordinary pursuits, can do research, and
valuable research, by continual and critical observation. If something
unusual happens, we should think about it and try to find out what it means
... There can be little doubt that the future of humanity depends greatly on
the freedom of the researcher to pursue his own line of thought. It is not
an unreasonable ambition in a research-worker that he should become famous,
but the man who undertakes research with the ultimate aim of wealth or power
is in the wrong place ... Not all Pakistan children can become
research-workers, but, with care, especially in their early youth, many can
reach that proud dignity.
He visited mosques and rose-gardens; he flew as far as the
Afghan frontier. Garlands of flowers were hung round his neck. He was
photographed riding on a camel. But his greatest pleasure was dining with
old comrades of the London Scottish, and being accompanied to the airport,
when he left, by pipers.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.