The Life of Sir Alexander
Chapter XVIII - The
But the lover of a noble nature remains its lover for life,
because the thing to which he cleaves is constant.
X, 183 E, Hamilton's translation
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 theunescocommission
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
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,
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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',unescowas
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 drankvin
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
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 theaulaof
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 toseehim.
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 andtsipourowere
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 moretsipouro.
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,5he
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.
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
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, January6th,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 himcFlem\
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
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.5After
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 buyingsaris,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.3He
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 almostcoutfleminged'
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
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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