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The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming
Chapter XVIII - The Delphic Oracle


But the lover of a noble nature remains its lover for life, because the thing to which he cleaves is constant.

plato, Symposium X, 183 E, Hamilton's translation

after the departure of his Greek pupil, Fleming gave the impression of being lost. He confided in nobody, but he did, which was most unusual with him, express regret in a vague and general way. One of his friends, D.J. Fyffe, describes him at this time, as follows:

One evening my wife and I met Fleming at the Royal Academy Soiree. It was duller than usual, and there seemed to be nothing to drink. He was wandering about in the crowd, and, much to our pleasure, joined us.

'This is a rotten party." he said, "I'm going home."

I suggested that he should come back to our flat, where we could have a party on our own. He drove us home. I found some champagne; my wife cooked bacon and eggs, and we sat down to supper. I think he was always at his ease with us, probably because we all came from Scotland. Anyway, we sat round the table and talked for a long time. He was unusually expansive. He spoke of his early life and of the strange fortune that had been so active in his career. I remember that he was wearing some rare Papal order, and that we twitted him on his collection of cosmopolitan decorations. He suddenly became serious.

He said that all this grandeur had come to him far too late in life, that he could not enjoy it as he should. Had it come earlier it would have given him time in which to cultivate the social graces in which he was deficient. He would have 'learned his manners'. As it was, he said, he didn't know how to behave. He regretted this very much, and was certainly sincere in what he said. He knew that his rather brusque ways had often offended, and wished that he had had a longer social experience.

He talked about all this rather wistfully, but, being a clear-headed, practical man, he accepted the fact as something inevitable in his intensely hard-working life ...

Official journeys shook him out of this kind of brooding. He had been made a member of the unesco commission charged with the duty of organizing medical conferences, the Commission of International Scientific Conferences (C.I.S.C.). He was only too glad to go to Paris for its meetings. He got on very well with his colleagues from other countries.

He rarely spoke on these occasions. 'They attach a great deal too much importance to what I say, so it behoves me to be cautious.' He had a very shrewd eye when it came to summing up others: 'A ... says little, but is listened to. B ... talks a lot, but nobody takes him seriously. X ... young and energetic, wants to see results. Z ... pleasant enough, but without ideas: very ordinary.'

Fleming's diary, session of 1951, Thursday, September 27th, 1951: H6tel Napoleon. Went for a walk along Champs ElysÚs and had a vermouth at Le Select — no particular reason, but I wanted to sit down and have a drink. Inside, they were serving meals, so I thought I might as well dine there as anywhere. Had a very good meal, but the proprietor and the head-waiter came along and accused me of being the discoverer of penicillin. On the strength of it I got an Alsace liqueur made from raspberries — very good and very potent. What a difference from anything in London! Lights everywhere, and shop windows all lit up ... Lots of English spoken by people in the street. Back in hotel before 10 p.m. ...

On October 30th, 1951, at St Mary's he was attending a session of the School Council, when he was called to the telephone. It was a telegram: 'Would you accept nomination as Rector Edinburgh University. Reply at once.'

The Scottish students themselves elect their Rectors. The post is an honorary one and does not involve residence. Nevertheless, the Rector does actually preside over the University Court, which is the highest authority in matters of administration and finance. Thus the students of Edinburgh in fact enjoy the privilege of electing what amounts to a Patron. They use it for the purpose of paying homage to those eminent men whom, for one reason or another, they admire. One group will choose a politician, another a writer, a scholar or a famous actor. The electoral battle, which is enthusiastic and amusing, quickly turns into a farcical epic.

Each candidate has to have the support of a group consisting of at least twenty students who conduct a vigorous campaign in his favour by means of posters, slogans and even pitched battles, because nightly combats occur between rival bands of bill-stickers. The Fleming faction was at first principally made up of medical students who are very powerful in Edinburgh, a city with an ancient and glorious medical tradition. Nothing could have given more pleasure to the Scottish youth who was still alive in the famous man.

Flemings diary: Replied 'yes', and when I rejoined Lord McGowan in the Council, he expressed his approval of my decision emphatically. Next morning one of the students [Ian Sullivan] came to ask my acceptance in writing. Was at Drapers' Company Dinner that night, and when I got home, Harold [Montgomery, a nephew] told me they had rung up from Edinburgh for a second signature as they feared their messenger might be kidnapped. It was too late, but apparently messenger got through, and I was duly nominated.

His most dangerous rival (out of eight candidates) was the Aga Khan, p.c., g.c.s.i., g.c.i.e., an enormously rich, powerful and clever man. The Aga Khan faction had hatched a plot to kidnap the messenger of the Fleming group at the Waverley Station. The Flemingites, informed of this, cut the ground from under their enemies' feet by themselves snatching their emissary from the train at London and taking him back to Edinburgh by car.

The most successful poster of the campaign was one carrying the single word 'FLEMING', It did its job, and it was cheap. Sir Alexander polled 1,096 votes to the Aga Khan's 660. The other candidates were left far behind. Fleming was pleased at having been elected with so big a majority. He had to go to Edinburgh to be installed. Harold Stewart, who made the journey with him, described it as follows: 'We had a very pleasant journey. He said "Hullo!" at King's Cross. We got into the same compartment. He said "Goodbye" at Edinburgh. Rectoria brevitas.

He had to deliver the Rectorial Address which, according to long-hallowed tradition, the students interrupted with shouting, singing, and every variety of noise.

Sir Alexander Fleming to John McKeen> President of Pfizer, Inc., New York: It was a very exciting experience and after 70 you don't want too much excitement. I can remember when I first read a paper to a society, in 1907. My knees shook, but they were concealed behind the lecturer's desk, and apparently my face did not give me away so all was well. My knees have not shaken since until I got up to deliver my address in Edinburgh, amidst a babel of noise. I found them shaking again. This time, though, I had on a long gown, and nobody noticed. I soon got used to the clamour, and when it was so loud that I could not be heard, I amused myself by thinking which bit I could cut without spoiling the story. All went well.

He was determined to make himself heard, and he succeeded. His address, which was excellent, deserved a hearing. He had chosen 'Success' as his subject:

What is success? It might be defined as the achievement of one's ambitions. If we accept this simple definition then everyone is in some way successful, and no one is completely successful. You have all achieved one ambition, to be students of the great University of Edinburgh. But you will have other ambitions, because ambition once achieved leads on to others.

Then he described what he held to be the most successful careers in history — those of Pasteur and Lister — and pointed out that success involved the conjunction of luck and genius.

The success of Louis Pasteur was phenomenal. How did it come about? The answer is, I think, simple — by hard work, careful observation, clear thinking, enthusiasm and a spot of luck. Plenty of people work hard and some of them make careful observations, but without the clear thinking which puts these observations in proper perspective, they get nowhere.

Speaking of his own career, he reminded his listeners, as it was his habit to do, that he had chosen St Mary's because that hospital happened to possess a very active swimming club- About the same time, the greatest of English bacteriologists, Almroth Wright, had gone there because he had quarrelled with the military authorities. But for that double piece of luck — his own love of swimming and Wright's rupture with the War Office — he might have been drawn into some other branch of medicine, and would not have discovered penicillin.

As to that discovery, he would be the first to attribute it to luck. A mould of penicillium had drifted in through a window. It had dissolved bacteria. He had taken notice of this, had continued his researches, and had found a substance possessed of extraordinary properties. What a variety of luck had been needed for him to get that far! Out of thousands of known moulds one, and one only, produced penicillin, and out of the millions of bacteria in the world, only some are affected by penicillin. If some other mould had come in contact with the same bacteria, nothing would have happened; if the right mould had come in contact with some other culture, nothing would have happened. If the right mould had come in contact with the right bacteria at the wrong moment, there would have been nothing to observe. Further, if, at that precise moment, his mind had been occupied with other things, he would have lost his chance. If he had been in a bad mood, he might well have thrown away the contaminated culture.

Had I done that I would not be here giving the Rectorial Address, so your selection of me as Rector really depended on my being in a good temper on a morning in September 1928 — before a lot of you were born. However, Fate ordained that everything happened right and penicillin appeared.

He spoke — also as his custom was — about team-work. There is, he said, great value in a team. For lack of a team he had not, while at St Mary's, been able to purify penicillin, and this had been done, only much later, by the team at Oxford. But there was much, too, to be said in favour of lonely research.

It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought and perception of an individual ... If, when penicillin began in my laboratory by an accidental occurrence, I had been a member of a team working on a specific problem, it is likely that I would have had to play for the team and so neglect this chance occurrence which had nothing whatever to do with the problems in hand. But, fortunately, I was not then one of a team, and, though there was nothing tangible to show that this chance occurrence was important, I was able to turn aside into the path which had been opened to me.

When he had finished, the students made a concerted rush at him, lifted him off his feet, and, to the accompaniment of an ear-splitting din of shouts, singing, drum-beating, mouth-organs and trombones, carried him shoulder-high to the Students' Union, where everybody took tea. It was the general opinion that he had come through this by no means gentle ordeal with courage and good-humour. He was a very popular Rector.

The merry-go-round of glory continued to revolve. In 1952 he went to Switzerland for a meeting of the World Health Organization. It took place in Geneva, but on his way there he stopped at Lausanne for a few days of rest and relaxation. On top of the hill at Gruy&re he had a lunch consisting only of cheese — 'one of the best meals I ever had.' At Geneva he learned that the World Medical Association was to meet in Athens during October, and that a member of the C.I.S.C. would be expected to attend. He said that he would very much like to be chosen, because he had 'interests in Athens', unesco was only too glad for him to travel to Greece as its delegate. He returned from Switzerland by car via the Jura, and stopped at D61e where he drank vin d'Arbois to the memory of Pasteur.

On October 6th he flew to Athens where he arrived thirty-six hours late, at three in the morning, feeling somewhat uneasy because he did not even know at what hotel he would be staying. When the door of the aeroplane was opened, he saw Amalia waiting for him in a group of friends. Much relieved, he shut his eyes — a peculiarity of his — and stood for several seconds upright and motionless in the doorway, making it impossible for the other passengers to get out. He need worry no longer. The programme of his stay had been drawn up with care and affection. The University of Athens had asked Dr Voureka to organize everything — lectures, receptions, visits and excursions. She was delighted to act as Fleming's guide and interpreter. She was proud of him, and proud, too, to show him her country. Greece fascinated him. On the first morning, he noted in his diary:

The sun was shining. My bedroom had a wide balcony. It was warm, so without dressing I walked out ... There, in front of me, was the Acropolis, my first joy after waking in Athens ... something never to be forgotten.

Not only did Greece attract him, as it attracts all the peoples of the Western world, but his interest had been stimulated by the description of the beauties of her country which Amalia had given him in the course of the last few years.

She had told me of the wonderful blue skies and the blue sea, of the sunshine and the fascinating changes of colour on the mountains. After all that I had been expecting a great deal, and although I arrived only in October, I have found that she had not exaggerated the beauty and charm of Greece.

His visit was one of friendship and triumph. He gave his first lecture in the aula of the University. So great was the crowd that many official persons could not get in. The Archbishop was present, the Prime Minister, a host of distinguished scientists, and old women in their picturesque headdresses. When these women were politely told that they would not be able to understand what he said because he would be speaking in English, they replied that they had come from their villages to see him.

He found an immense pleasure in letting his friend and collaborator do the honours of her country. They took their meals beside the sea. At night the coast looked like a necklace of diamonds. She flew with him to Salonica. When she told him that he would have to leave a card on the Archbishop, he had to confess that he had not brought any visiting-cards with him, but asked for a blank card on which he wrote his name in letters so perfectly formed that they might have been engraved,

A car had been put at his disposal for a trip to the north of Greece. A royal escort of motor cyclists surrounded him in the wild and beautiful mountains. At Kastoria he lodged with an eminent citizen and, in accordance with the Greek laws of hospitality, was given a cup of coffee, a spoonful of jam, a glass of water and some of the potent local drink, tsipouro. Then, all the notabilities — the mayor, the bishop, the chief of police, the senior doctor — came to pay their respects to him. As each new visitor arrived, the tray of coffee, jam and tsipouro were brought in, and the hostess courteously offered it to Fleming on each separate occasion. Thinking it to be a ritual obligation, he partook of everything each time the tray was brought to him. Then he had to pay a visit to the bishop and drink still more tsipouro. On the way back, his legs were far from steady.

But he revelled in everything like a child; fished in the lakes and was taken to the spot where the frontiers of Greece, Jugoslavia and Albania meet. Sometimes when they passed near a town where no stop had been arranged, the inhabitants stood on the road watching for the car, and carried off the 'man who had found penicillin' to feast and be made much of. At last he returned to Athens where he was to be received into the Academy. He had scarcely time to write his speech, which Dr Voureka had to translate in the car on their way to the ceremony.

It was a great moment for me when I was received into the Academy of the city which had given learning to the world at a time when the inhabitants of my own country were barbarians and savages. Still more was I thrilled when I was presented with an olive branch cut from the tree under which Plato had taught his pupils. This is one of my great treasures.

Then he resumed his travels. He saw Corinth, the Theatre at Epidaurus, the Temple of Aesculapius, Argos and Mycenae, Olympia and Delphi, which, with its six thousand years of legend and history, its temples and its oracle and its glorious olive wood, filled him with wonder. But in his diary, he merely wrote:

Visited temple ... marvellous situation ... saw ruin where oracle originally sat and position she occupied later in temple.

Visited fountain ... in which people washed before consulting the oracle. Sat there with a pot of beer ... Went over temple again. Much better second time.

In front of the stone on which the oracle sat, he had the way in which she made her utterances explained to him. He began to say 'The Delphic oracle but his companion interrupted him to point out a ray of sunlight which, darting from a cloud, illuminated the olive trees in the valley: 'Look how beautiful it is!' Then, remembering that she had interrupted him: 'You were going to say something?' 'No, nothing,5 he replied.

He admitted later that the Delphic oracle had counselled him to marry his travelling-companion. 'An old woman, seated on a stone, and pretending to be wise! She got a lot of people into trouble in the old days and she is still at it/

On his return to Athens he carried out in the laboratory of the Evangelismos Hospital (the very one of which Dr Voureka was in charge) a series of demonstrations having to do with phagocytosis and the opsonic index. He had long scientific conversations with Professor Ioakimoglou, and a talk, no less serious, with the Professor's niece, Nora, on the subject of her dolls. In the note-book in which he jotted down the outstanding incidents of every day, he wrote: 'Mairoula is afraid of me', and, two days later: 'Mairoula now friendly.' Mairoula, Amalia's niece, was two years old.

He lunched privately with the King and Queen.

Fleming*s diary: Drove out to Summer Palace at 1.30. Received by Queen Frederica — a young and attractive woman. Very vivacious — and talked away. King came in soon. Had a drink and then went to lunch. Just the four of us. Dr Voureka, King, Queen, Self. Good General conversation ... Stayed till 3.45. Gave Queen penicillium culture. She seemed very pleased.

At last, after a few days' rest at Rhodes, he was given the Freedom of Athens and the City Medal at a solemn ceremony in the City Hall, the walls of which were hung with alternate English and Greek flags. This occasion marked the end of a marvellous journey. He had witnessed the adoration of the ordinary people; he had had honours showered upon him. He had been deeply touched by the devotion of his young companion. It was thanks to her that his visit had been so pleasant and so perfect. But he was due to leave on November 10th.

On the evening of the gth, he went to her house to write his letters of thanks and farewell, to collect his papers and arrange his notes. She was sad and tired. All of a sudden, after a month of unceasing effort, she felt overcome with exhaustion. She thought that perhaps she would never see her master again, and was conscious of a sense of painful solitude. They had a last, quiet, melancholy dinner together. Just as he was about to say goodbye, he muttered some unintelligible words which she failed to hear. After a moment, he said: 'You have not answered me.'

'Did you say anything?'

'I asked you to marry me!

She looked at him without wholly taking in his words. Then her brain started to function again. The meaning of what he had said dawned on her. 'Yes,' she replied.

In Fleming's diary, under the date November 9th, 1952, there are a few technical notes, and then, on a line by itself, the one word 'Yes'.

He left Athens on the 10th, without having had another chance to speak with the woman whom a single word had made his affianced bride. He had to spend all that last morning in receiving the visits of doctors and students who came to say goodbye.

From the aeroplane he wrote his first letter to Amalia as his future wife, and in the next nine days he wrote her nine letters. They were letters full of anxiety, for he was without news of her: disturbed by his laconic proposal, she had decided to wait until she was sure of his feelings, before writing herself. But at last he received two letters by the same post, containing many expressions of exuberant happiness. His anxiety now relieved, he sent her a very matter-of-fact one in reply, realistic and sensible, in which he explained that he could not take her to India with him, and did not want the marriage to be performed before he left on that journey. 'It would be a mistake to marry you and then vanish for two months/ He suggested that the ceremony should take place after he got back from Cuba and the United States, in the second fortnight of June 1953- "After all, we are launching out on a long-term voyage/ He seemed, she thought, to see life in terms of eternity.

Fleming to Professor and Mrs Roger Lee, January 6th, 1945

My Dear Friends,

Thank you ever so much for your Christmas greetings ... I am due to give a lecture in Boston on May 20th next, and I was hoping to stay for one or two days.

It may be that I shall be able to introduce you to a new wife but please do not say anything about this to anyone. It seems late in life to marry again but I think it is worth it ...

He left for India at the beginning of 1953 with a number of doctors, among them a Frenchman, Professor Georges Portmann of Bordeaux, with whom he struck up a friendship. He very soon became popular among his companions. They liked his simplicity, his 'good Scotch fun5, his dry humour. They were amazed at his youthfulness. They called him cFlem\ They were surprised, and he no less, at the adoration shown him by the Indian crowds in Bombay and later in Madras. When he spoke, the halls were not large enough to hold all those who wanted to hear him, and he was wildly applauded wherever he went. He said that he felt like a Hollywood film-star, 'but from the way he said it, one could see that he really quite liked being a star.'

He insisted on taking his share in all the fatigues of the trip, and was not at all pleased when four bearers attempted to carry him up an immensely long staircase which led to one of the temples. He liked to show how young and virile he was. When he spoke on medical education, he advised his Indian listeners to beware of the 'flim-flam' (a favourite expression of his) of public lectures. He dwelt on the importance of small groups of pupils, and on individual research-work. Fundamentally, his ideal was the old Inoculation Department. In the evenings at their hotel he liked gathering his friends together for what he called a 'frig', because he kept his whisky in a refrigerator.

Aneurin Bevan, the English Labour M.P., who was a great orator and happened to be attending another congress in India, delivered a fine speech on the subject of Social Medicine. He was surprised to see Fleming in the front row, knowing, as he did, how hostile he was to all State intervention. Later on, Fleming said that he hesitated to address the company after they had heard another Britisher who was so much better a speaker. 'On the other hand/ he added, 'when I speak, I give you the facts; Bevan has to draw upon his imagination.5 After saying this, he told the story of penicillin and pointed out what, to his mind, were the true principles of research. After so much repetition, he had become, where these matters were concerned, almost eloquent. At the conclusion of his speech, the students gave him an ovation and besieged him with requests for his autograph.

He looked at temples and grottoes, ceremonies and dances with the same interest that he showed in all new and beautiful things, and a pleasure which nothing could blunt. He took thousands of photographs. He wanted to examine everything, understand everything, but also, as always, not to be taken in.

Throughout the trip, he was constantly buying saris, scarves and other feminine adornments. He chose them with so much love and care that the others began to question him. He replied that they were all for his sister. No one believed this, but it was impossible to get anything else out of him. Personal feelings were, for him, too sacred to be expressed in words. All the same, in spite of his self-control, his emotion when he was buying these things was clearly visible.

He took part in a leopard-hunt and a walking-race. Of all these things he sent long descriptions to his future wife:

I seem to have written for a whole half-hour which is more than your ration. You are being spoilt. At 6.30 it is just getting light and thousands of sparrows are chattering in a tree outside the window.

Ever since leaving Greece he had taken to writing letters to her every day, and sometimes twice a day.

By the time the trip was over, his companions had grown sincerely attached to him, and decided that, cin his own quiet, reserved and imperturbable way, lie displayed the finest qualities of the human character.' The American, Dr Leo Rigler (from Duarte, California), who was one of his fellow travellers, writes: CI shall always remember the cigarette drooping from his mouth, and the modest, natural way in which he accepted so much adulation.3 He arrived back in London on March 31 st. It had been arranged that Amalia should come as soon as Fleming reached home, that they should get married at once and set off together for Cuba and the United States. She had succeeded in gaining two months on the original time-table.

When she got out of the aeroplane which brought her to England on Good Friday, April 3rd, she looked for him, but in vain. When he had travelled to Greece, she had asked for, and obtained, permission to await his arrival on the airfield. But Fleming always had scruples about asking for favours, no matter how small. He had kept in the background to avoid publicity. She found him, at last, at the exit from the Customs shed, in the very back row of those who had come to meet passengers. Brimming with happiness she ran to him, and was appalled to see confronting her a face like a stone wall. Beside him, looking gloomy, was Elizabeth, Sareen's twin sister. Amalia, frozen and wretched, looked at these two seemingly hostile persons without in the least understanding what was happening. Later on, when she had learned to interpret the least quiver of her husband's face and to divine the secret springs of his otherwise unintelligible behaviour, she came to understand the intensity of emotion denoted by this complete immobility of his features. She knew by then what a struggle between opposed feelings and duties was sometimes going on behind that impenetrable face.

Later, too, she realized that only his immense kindliness had led him to bring his sister-in-law with him to the airport. He had wanted to give the old and ailing woman a feeling that nothing would be changed where she was concerned. The most precious virtues have often a counter-balance of scruples which, in their turn, can inflict profound and unnecessary suffering on the beloved. Fleming had the defects of his qualities. Such a value did he set on loyalty that he tried to be loyal to everybody at one and the same time. Oversensitive, he sought refuge in an excessive reserve. He was too wise, too patient, and extreme patience is sometimes a dangerous virtue. Naturally modest, he found it difficult to believe that anyone should love him. There were no limits to his fair-mindedness, with the result that his efforts to achieve impartiality sometimes made him unfair to himself and to those he loved.

Next morning, Saturday, he went with his future wife to the Chelsea Registry Office to get a marriage-licence. The Registrar took down his name and address with a completely impassive expression. One could have sworn that he had never heard of Sir Alexander Fleming. But when he had finished writing, he said, in the same official tone and not raising his eyes: 'I presume, sir, that you would wish to avoid all publicity. I will post the necessary notice as late as possible. The Press will know nothing about it until the office reopens on Tuesday.' Fleming said 'Thank you.' Both men had observed the maximum degree of reserve and discretion. The Registrar had almost coutfleminged' Fleming.

On the following Tuesday and Wednesday the newspapers, now in possession of the information, pursued both of them in an attempt to discover the time and place of the ceremony. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Fleming went as usual to the Chelsea Arts Club for his game of snooker. He said nothing to his friends about his marriage, but on the way out grunted something to the effect that 'I probably shan't be here tomorrow: I may have to make a change in my habits.'

His stockbroker, A. M. Ritchie, who was also his friend, had received from him that day a note in which he spoke of'important business, which you will probably see something about in the papers'. Ritchie telephoned to ask what the important business was. Fleming was evasive and merely said: 'Come and see me after dinner.'

'Apparently', says Ritchie, 'his marriage had been announced in the late editions of the evening papers, but not in the one I had read, so that, when I went to see him, I knew nothing about it. That, at first, was the cause of some small embarrassment, because I put some questions to him, and he, believing that I already knew, thought I was having fun with him. Finally the misunderstanding was cleared up, and we had a delightful monosyllabic tete-a-tete over whiskies and sodas and cigarettes. He was obviously a happy and satisfied man, which he had not been for several years.'

On Thursday, April 9th, at 11 a.m. the civil marriage took place at the Chelsea Registry Office, in the presence of only two witnesses. The religious ceremony followed at midday, at the Greek Church of St Sophia, in Moscow Road, before a few friends and relations. Finally, there was a small party at Claridge's, where the newly married couple were to spend the week before they left for Cuba.


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