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The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming
Chapter XIX - Too short a happiness


And having brought forth and nourished true excellence, the love of the gods will be his, and he, himself - if ever a man can - will be immortal.

plato, The Banquet, XXIX, 212 A

Fortune has, in many ways, been kind to me, and I have tried to repay Fortune by doing a good job of work. Fleming

Fleming's friends approved of his marriage. Ben May wrote from America: 'Dr Voureka has character in the sense of courage, sincerity and kindness. She has a fine brain and a good training

She had admired Fleming long before she married him, and their life together served to confirm and deepen her admiration. He was human, but his humanity was of a more than usually high quality. He had copied out in his own handwriting Kipling's poem 'IF', and there can have been few men to whom each verse of it is so applicable. Who knew better how to 'meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same5? The delighted surprise and, at the same time, the sincere detachment with which he accepted the honours which had so suddenly invaded his simple life; the fact that at the topmost summit of worldly fame he was still as modest, still as shy as before — gave the man's true measure.

His only defect was the difficulty he experienced in expressing himself, so that his strongest feeling remained unuttered. At first his wife suffered a good deal from this excessive reserve until a day came when an affectionate and spontaneous reply to something he had said took him completely by surprise, and she saw upon his face a sudden glow of radiant happiness. This rare disturbance of his features had revealed emotions so sincere and so strong that she felt herself rewarded for the silences which for so long she had found distressing and disturbing.

On April 16th they set off together for Cuba. At the Havana airport they were met by the usual official personages and also by a young girl, Margarita Tamargo, who had worked at the Wright-Fleming Institute as the holder of a British Council bursary. She was there to act for them as guide and interpreter, the part played by Amalia herself in Greece. Spontaneous, exuberant, authoritative, but radiating kindness, she ordered everybody about and everybody loved her.

In the days when she was working at the Institute, she had been one of Fleming's most ardent admirers. Once, when she was dining with Dr Voureka and other Institute friends, the future Lady Fleming had said that she was translating one of Fleming's lectures into French. Margarita Tamargo had clasped her hands in an ecstasy and exclaimed: Oh! if only he would give me something to translate for him into Spanish! ... I would do anything for him, yes, anything until midnight!' Thatcanything*, and the time-limit, had brought her a deal of teasing.

Margarita Tamargo, happy in the good fortune of her friends, surrounded them with attentions and affection. The British Ambassador had reserved rooms for them at the Country Club, which was close to the golf-links, because it was the most English hotel in Havana. Sir Alexander, always ready to accept without a word any arrangement made for him by the authorities, would have remained there. But the Country Club was far from the sea, and the heat was stifling. Lady Fleming and Margarita at once began to hatch a plot to get him moved. They 'did5 three hotels in two hours, reduced the Embassy staff to a state of complete bewilderment because nobody knew where Fleming was to be found, and finally discovered a suite with a superb view over the ocean. Meanwhile, mail, flowers and dignitaries were being sent on from one hotel to another. Fleming, astonished and startled, between the exuberant Margarita and the impetuous Amalia, but not a little amused by their audacity, expressed his indignation at their lack of respect for the official planning. Nevertheless, he bloomed in this atmosphere of youth and gaiety which suited him a great deal better than that in which men of his age usually live.

The Cuba visit was an immense success. He delivered a number of excellent lectures at the University, often improvising them at short notice. He spoke not only of what he had done, but of what he hoped to do, and of the research-work which he looked forward to seeing carried out by others. The students were completely carried away by his simplicity. He instructed them in technical matters and answered their questions as though he had been their contemporary. He visited the hospitals and was taken to see the hut where Walter Reed and Finlay had exposed themselves to mosquito bites in order to study yellow fever — one of the choly places' of bacteriology.

cHe had no vanity,' says Margarita Tamargo, 'and there was something very special about him which I can find no word to describe. He was pleased with what people did for him, with the things they said to him, with the homage they gave to him ... and, above all, with the affection which showed in their eyes. One evening we took him to the Tropicana (a night club) ... He was terribly embarrassed when his presence was announced and everybody applauded.'

At the end of their stay they spent three days at Veradero, in a villa belonging to Alberto Sanchy del Monte and his wife, Margarita's uncle and aunt. Fleming swam, dived and fished. He was given a large straw hat, and a guayabera, a shirt worn by the Cubans. He was shown the grottoes full of stalactites and stalagmites where, as formerly in the temples of India, his hosts had the greatest difficulty in preventing him from climbing without a halt an immense flight of steps. He wanted to show that the young women got tired more quickly than he did. He enjoyed himself so much that Margarita suggested a lengthening of their stay. To this he said: cBut, Margarita, I have to work for my living' — which was true.

The Flemings left on April 30th for New York, weighed down by the cigars they had been given. Fleming had never smoked anything but cigarettes, but he disliked all forms of waste and, having been presented with these lovely cigars, he duly smoked them.

In the United States his programme, as usual, was very exhausting — lectures, radio, television, interviews. Here is one example of how his time was filled. He left Duluth in the morning by car, arrived at Saint-Paul where a great luncheon had been arranged, left again, as soon as it was over, for Rochester where he wanted to see his friend Keith (who had been with him at Boulogne-sur-Mer), visited the Mayo Clinic where he had several long scientific talks, and then, after dining with the Keiths, drove back, after dark, to Saint-Paul. Lady Fleming was worn out. He, however, seemed as fresh as though he had never left his armchair.

It was a great pleasure for him to introduce his young wife to his American friends, and especially to Roger Lee, the Harvard professor. cAlec would sit down and sigh at times and explain that he was not a desk-man, nor a travelling man; he was a laboratory man who would like to get back to the bench. I never knew how he did the travelling, the speeches, etc. He was always accommodating, and everyone loved him. Over the years I have had many communications from Alec, practically all of them short and brief. It is to be noted that he wrote longer letters to Mrs Lee than he did to me, and also that his letters were longer when he was discussing Amalia.'

She came more and more to wonder at his extraordinary capacity for work, at his charming manners and splendid character. He never complained. As an attraction he was promised three days' rest during which he could fish in a wonderful lake. Though experience had taught him how empty such promises were, he kept on believing them. No sooner had he arrived than he was asked to give a dozen lectures during this period of 'rest' (they would be so useful to the students), to visit a number of hospitals (the patients would be so delighted), and to talk on the radio. So his whole time was filled with engagements and tasks which he accepted from sheer goodness of heart, 'to give a little pleasure'.

As a result of being continuously at his side during this trip, she discovered that, when abroad, he was very much less shy than usual. In England an excess of reserve seemed to be imposed upon him by the reactions of others, at which he guessed and which he dreaded. But in America the radiant smile which she had noticed since she had first met him scarcely ever left his lips.

This angelic mood was rarely overcast. But there were certain things he could not put up with. Though modest to the point of humility, he would not permit any lack of respect, even when it showed in matters of omission. He never said anything on such occasions, but would flush slightly, and an icy look, a glint of deep and irrevocable contempt, would show in his eyes.

They returned to England in the Queen Elizabeth, both of them delighted at the prospect of getting back to work. His administrative duties at the Institute continued to pose a number of difficult problems. At the time of the passing into law of the National Health Service, it had become necessary for the Wright-Fleming Institute to merge either with the Medical School or with the new Service. Like Wright before him, Fleming had feared that such a merger would mean a loss of autonomy for the Institute. His tenacity, his insistence on maintaining some degree of independence, had irritated the authorities at St Mary's. But he had been sure that he was right, and had stuck to his point so doggedly that a compromise had finally been arrived at: the Institute was linked up with the Medical School, but retained considerable autonomy. As time went on, however, this autonomy — which Fleming considered so important for the scientific spirit of the Institute — had come to be in danger of being destroyed; and to Fleming, the great advocate of 'freedom in research', this was a cause of great distress.

They settled down in London at the house in Danvers Street which Amalia had to some extent rearranged. In the morning he drove her to the Institute where both of them were working. In the evening, he took her home, then went to the club, which was near by, for his game of snooker, even when he had to dress for a dinner. 'There's plenty of time,' he would say, and continue with his game until ten minutes to seven. He reminded his wife, as though he were making an enormous concession: 'In the old days I never got home till half-past.' The extra forty minutes were his tribute to her.

They went out almost every evening or entertained friends at home. When, by chance, they were alone together, he sat in his armchair and she on a stool at his feet. At those moments she felt herself filled with a surge of happiness, of delirious joy and peace. It was good to feel him there so close in mind and heart, so steadfast and so reliable. To have no more fears and doubts: to know that life would no longer hold unsolved puzzles, just because he was there. It was good to have at her disposal so much kindliness, so much knowledge, so much wisdom and to know, and to repeat to herself, that it would be with her for a long time, for ever. For, otherwise, what meaning could there be in all those strange coincidences which had brought together two beings belonging to different generations, different countries, different backgrounds? Fleming had always said that Destiny had played a great part in shaping his life. Could she not now, at last, also trust in Destiny?

He had grown younger and seemed happier than he had ever been since she had known him. 'I shall never be old,3 he said, 'until I begin to find life dull.' He certainly had not done that.

In the country, where he and his wife spent the week-ends and the whole of August, his activity shamed his guests, many of them not yet thirty. They had to be for ever on the move, going to see the wonderful strawberries which he had managed to grow in an old tank, watching him building a new greenhouse for the tomatoes, or mending a broken corkscrew with a machine he had set up in the garage which filed, polished and sharpened. If it wasn't any of these things, it was going with him to grub up worms for bait. Of course, he knew exactly where the best worms were to be found, for he had been observing their habits, and went straight to a corner near the strawberry-beds, and stuck a fork into the ground where absolutely perfect worms were wriggling.

'You wouldn't find these anywhere else in the garden,' he would say with pride. 'All the best come from here.'

When he was not carrying off his friends to fish or row on the river, there were games to be played — croquet outside, draughts in. He still took the same childlike pleasure in winning. There certainly was no idling at The Dhoon. 'Let's have a look at the headlines,' said one of his women guests, opening the paper, 'before Sir Alec comes back and drags us off to play some game or other.'

In October 1953 he was due to make a speech at the opening of 'Les Journ6es Medicales' in Nice. Two days before the appointed date, he woke up with a highfever. He himself diagnosed pneumonia. His doctor confirmed this and immediately gave him an injection of penicillin. His fever abated in the course of the day. The rapidity with which the penicillin had done its work enchanted him. T had no idea it was so good!' he said. But any thought of Nice was out of the question. Lady Fleming telephoned the organizers, who not unnaturally protested. They had announced Fleming and Fleming they must have.

'Quite impossible,' she said.

'Then you must come instead, madame.'

Her husband insisted on her accepting. 'You can't let me down,' he said. Then, as she stuck to her refusal, he did a most unusual thing: he actually paid her a compliment: 'No other wife could do as much for her husband.'

She took the plane to Nice, read his speech, and returned laden with flowers. The local reporters, however, seeing her there instead of Fleming, had demanded an explanation which she could not avoid giving them. The London papers, having got wind of what had happened, rang up Danvers Street. Fleming answered the call in person: 'Can't a chap be ill in peace?'

Fleming to Mrs Roger Lee: I did get a very sudden and, in the old days, I should think severe, attack of lobar pneumonia. High temperature for perhaps 12 hours, and then, with penicillin, nothing. But the physician would keep me in bed, and nothing would have appeared in the papers if I hadn't been engaged to read a paper at a Congress in Nice ... My illness, though, has had two results which may be good. For six weeks now I have given up smoking — at the moment I think it may be good for the health, but not for the temper. The other is that I have at last appreciated what a difference there is between lobar pneumonia now and when I was a student (especially in an old man).

He kept to his bed for a fortnight, and then got up too soon, since, as Rector of the University of Edinburgh, he had to be present at the installation of the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor. It was the Duke, too, who in 1954 presided at a ceremony in Fleming's honour at St Mary's. On May 10th, 1929, the first papers on the subject of penicillin had appeared in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. On May 29th, 1954, to mark the silver jubilee of this event, a memento in the form of two silver soup tureens was presented to Fleming by his colleagues in the library of the School. The Duke said that it was not for him in the presence of so distinguished an audience to recall what Sir Alexander had achieved, but that he knew enough about it to hope that he himself would never have need of that discovery. He added that 'soup tureens were a suitable present to commemorate broth'. Fleming, in his reply, quoted the proverb: 'Tall oaks from little acorns grow.' From a minute spore a mighty industry had developed.

A few moments before the ceremony was timed to begin, his wife noticed that he had forgotten to put the links into his shirt-cuffs. She had hurried round to the local Woolworths and bought him a pair for a few pence. He never enjoyed being the central figure on any public occasion and quite frequently forgot his role. Some time later, the Queen Mother went to St Mary's to lay the foundation-stone of a new wing. She was to place within the marble block a culture of penicillium, a copy of Sir Zachary Cope's book about the hospital, and a stop-watch marking the exact time taken by Roger Bannister (a student at St Mary's) to run the mile. Surrounded on the platform by a group of professors, she rose and delivered a speech in which she did honour to Fleming. Everybody applauded, including Fleming, who was probably sunk in a day-dream and had not heard his own name.

The Flemings spent part of August at Barton Mills in their garden. Sir Alexander had promised to go to Bordeaux in November in response to a request from his friend, Professor Portmann, the Dean of the University. Portmann, who had heard Lady Fleming at Nice, asked her to translate Sir Alexander's address, and to read it in his name.

Fleming's diary, Saturday, November 13th, 1954: ... Met at Bordeaux by Dr and Mrs Portmann. Driven to their house on other side of Bordeaux ... Introduced to family. Young Mrs Portmann very attractive. Mrs Portmann also very attractive with a curious smile. The house was where Benedictine used to be made.

Sunday, November 14th, 1954: Away at 9.30 to St Emilion. Drove through miles of vineyards. There seemed to be quite different autumn colours, some deep bronze and some half green ... The Jurats were all in red robes. The head read a long speech and clothed me in a red gown and pronounced me a Jurat. I said very few words. Then to Pauillac where inaugurated into the order of the Compagnons du Bontemps de Mddoc. A ritual. Had to say what a wine was. Completely failed though told by Portmann. Could only say Medoc wine ... Then to Mouton Rothschild for lunch. They had written a year ago about egg-white and lysozyme ... Should resume that research. A wonderful lunch with wines one of which w&s 1881 (my birthday).

Monday, November 15th: ... To Town Hall for lunch with Mayor. Lunch ended about 4. A very short rest, for at 5 had to go to Theatre to receive degree ... British and French flags. Marseillaise and God Save the Queen. Portmann speech. Rector speech. A. F. in French and then Amalia gave lecture on Search for Antibiotics, in French. Very successful ... Then to University Council dinner ...

He had wanted for a long time to be relieved of his work as Director of the Institute. He was far better suited to free research than to administrative duties. His very qualities stood in his way. 'He detested administration,' says Craxton, the secretary of the Institute, 'so much so that I am strongly of the opinion that if he had been relieved of the administration of the Wright-Fleming Institute at an earlier date he would have been with us now.

'Knowing from experience that administration gave him such a "pain in the mind", I troubled him with such matters as seldom as possible, always made my consultations with him very brief, and always arranged for them to take place as soon as possible after his arrival at the Institute to prevent interrupting his research work.

T was more often than not greeted with a smiling face that appeared to cover anxiety, and the remark "Good morning, Craxton — no trouble I hope," and when I was able to report a happy state of affairs his face beamed with an expression of relief... However, one of Sir Alexander's most outstanding gifts was his aptitude for the administration of justice. Never during the whole of my life have I met so just a man, and I have long felt that if he had not taken up Medical Research as a profession, he would have achieved equal fame if he had been a lawyer.'

But he longed to shed the burden of power. In December 1954 Lady Fleming wrote to Ben May:

Alec is very well. I think he has a good wife! He is retiring from his administrative job at the end of the month and will be able to devote more time to research. I am working on a problem which fascinates me but I keep failing to do what I try. Still there is an end even to failures.

In January 1955 he resigned his post of Principal, though he still kept on his laboratory at the Institute. At a small dinner given him at St Mary's, he made a very short speech:

I am not going away. I am not leaving the hospital. This is not goodbye. I shall be here for years, so don't think you are getting rid of me.

Craxton, in the name of the Council and the staff of the Institute, presented him with an album containing all their signatures and said: cWe sincerely wish you a long and happy retirement. We are glad to know that Lady Fleming and you will continue your researches at the Institute. May Providence lead both of you to new and great discoveries.'

On January 15th, 1955, the Society of Microbiology gave a dinner in honour of Sir Alexander on the occasion of his retirement as Principal of the Institute. In his reply to the speeches he said:

I am not retiring to the country to grow cabbages. I would rather grow microbes and I have not given up hope of reading a paper at one of your meetings.

He revelled in his freedom from administrative duties and personal squabbles. He was, however, besieged more than before by visitors. Many of them wanted him to reverse his decision to resign. Others came to ask his advice on private matters. All this tired him out. One day in February, in the course of a discussion on the subject of his resignation, he was taken ill with sudden vomitings and a slight rise in temperature. There was no apparent reason for this. The trouble was diagnosed as gastric flu. On the Sunday he felt rather worse, but refused to have any of his doctor friends disturbed.

'From that moment', says Lady Fleming, ca change came over him. He seemed to be utterly exhausted.' All the same, he still went every day to the laboratory, and talked about starting on a new piece of work with her, which should bear both their names — A. and A. Fleming. They were due to leave on March 17th for Istanbul, Ankara and Beirut, with a few days in Greece. Amalia hoped that the sun would do her husband good.

March 3rd, 1955: Alec had a rather bad winter, coughing and living in this cold London without any sun. I am trusting Greece to make him regain his beautiful tan colour.

She was wildly happy at the prospect of going back with him to Athens. She knew the itinerary and the dates by heart. He would ask her: 'Where shall we be on the 230!?* and she would reply with such a wealth of detail that it set him off laughing.

One Saturday, at the beginning of March, when they had gone to Barton Mills for the week-end, the telephone rang at midnight. Fleming answered it. She could hear what he said: 'Oh, they have, have they? ... Many thanks ... I am most grateful... I shall be back tomorrow.'

His tone was one of polite gratitude. When he rejoined her, he said: 'That was a policeman. He was speaking from the house, from Danvers Street. There has been a burglary.5 'What has been taken?' she asked. 'I don't know,' he answered, 'I didn't inquire.' They went home next morning. Before leaving The Dhoon they had a last look round. The studio where he had made his little laboratory stood out clearly against the snow between the trees. Amalia thought that the garden was looking exactly like the photograph he had given her when she went back to Greece, saying as he did so: 'You must not forget the little lab.'

There was surface ice on the road. It was snowing. There was a sort of pendent gloom over everything. As they were passing a cemetery, he asked a woman friend who was with them whether .she would like to see the crematorium. When she protested, he said in a very low voice: 'I should like to be cremated/ When they reached Chelsea, they learned that a neighbour had raised the alarm just as the burglars, having taken but the safe, had dropped it into the street with a dreadful din. They had then made off, taking with them Lady Fleming's jewellery, a few ornaments and a camera. Reporters arrived. Lady Fleming told them that the most tiresome theft of all was that of the keys to their luggage, which were attached to a valuable seal which had belonged to a woman friend. But seal and keys had vanished. This detail was published in theDaily Express. Just about dinner-time Lady Fleming was called to the telephone. She heard a completely-strange, deep, low, unpleasant voice, a 'dirty voice', which said:

'You'd like to have that seal back, wouldn't you?'

Hesitantly, and with a strong feeling of repugnance, she replied: 'Yes.'

'Where can I see you alone?' asked the voice.

'You can't see me alone. Either send the seal back by post, or keep it.'

The voice said again, several times, in a very low tone: 'I'll send it ... I'll send it.'

She hung up the receiver, and reported the conversation to her husband.

'Do you think we ought to tell the police?' she asked him. He was engaged in testing a camera which could project stereoscopic images on to a three-dimensional screen.

'Have a look at this/ he said, 'it really is extraordinary. If one stands a little way off, the flowers seem to come out of the screen and move towards you.'

It was the very latest 'toy' from his Oklahoma friends. He had, as always, shown it to everybody at the lab., and then brought it home with him in the car 'so as to play with it this evening'.

'I have just asked you a serious question,' she said. 'What do you think I ought to do?'

She thought that she could not get him away from his toy. But this was his way of giving himself time to think. They decided finally that if the thief 'did the decent thing' and returned the seal, they mustn't lay a trap for him.

For some days, he had been teasing her about their Middle East journey: 'You want us to go? ... Well, I shall catch typhoid and die.' She begged him to have an anti-typhoid vaccination, but he kept on shilly-shallying. ^

On the Thursday, Compton told Lady Fleming that he had at last managed to give Sir Alexander the injection. 'Since he wouldn't come down to the clinic, I went and did him in his lab./ he said with a gay laugh.

Fleming spent all day working at the Institute. He told Freeman how pleased he was at having got rid of his responsibilities, and to be able to do some real work and 'muck about at the bench again'. He seemed well and in a thoroughly good humour, planning all sorts of new research work. After leaving the hospital he went as usual to the Chelsea Arts Club for his game of snooker. His old friend, Dr Breen, thought he was looking remarkably fit and told him so. He replied that he had never felt better and that he was much looking forward to seeing Greece again with his wife.

When he had finished his game, he fetched her and they went on together to a party. After dinner, his son Robert and his fiancee came round, and once more the wonders of the new camera were demonstrated. Amalia was dropping with fatigue. Fleming was in high spirits and enjoyed showing off his marvellous toy. From time to time he scratched his arm which the inoculation had left rather sore.

On Friday morning, March i ith, he awoke in a very gay mood and watched with some amusement the eagerness with which his wife opened the post.

4You're hoping to find your seal, aren't you? You'll never see it again.'

He had a heavy but pleasant day ahead of him: lunch at the Savoy, and dinner with Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Eleanor Roosevelt. He got up, and went to have his bath. When he came back he looked very pale and complained of a feeling of nausea. Amalia felt frightened and went to the telephone to call a doctor. Fleming protested vigorously: 'Don't be ridiculous: don't trouble a doctor for nothing.'

But she had already got through. Dr John Hunt answered her: Til be with you in an hour.' sNot before that?' she exclaimed anxiously.

Fleming said again that she was being ridiculous, that he'd only been a bit sick. That was perfectly true. If only, she thought, she could learn to take things as calmly as he did, and not start worrying for nothing* Then, remembering the Fairbanks dinner, she wanted to ring up and say that Sir Alexander was too unwell to come.

, 'Don't do anything about it yet,' he said, cit may not be necessary/

He asked for some hot water to drink, then for bicarbonate of soda. He got to his feet and began to walk about the room. His healthy, vigorous body was trying to shake off the unexpected malaise, refusing to accept it. But he had to give in and go back to bed.

Amalia left the room to get dressed, leaving him for a short while with the maid. Dr Hunt, who had been alarmed at the anxiety in Lady Fleming's voice, rang her back. Fleming insisted on taking the call himself.

Ts it urgent? Shall I leave my other cases and come round at once?'

'No urgency whatsoever ... Look after your other patients first.'

His wife came back and found him lying on the bed, perfectly calm and peaceful. The attack, she thought, had passed, and, remembering that he had been in'oculated the day before, asked him whether the feeling of sickness might not be a delayed reaction.

'No,' he said. His voice was serious. Then: 'Will you comb my hair?' When she had done this, he said: 'Now I am decent.'

She wanted to take his pulse. His arm was cold. 'Yes,' he said, 'I'm covered in cold sweat. And I don't know why I've got this pain in my chest.'

This time, she felt panic-stricken: 'Are you absolutely sure it's not your heart?'

'It's not the heart,' he said, 'it's going down from the oesophagus to the stomach.'

His voice was still strangely calm and serious. It was as though he were thinking deeply and trying to understand.

Suddenly his head fell forward.

Alexander Fleming was dead.

As the result of a supreme act of self-effacement, a sensitive desire that nobody should be disturbed on his account, a determination not to be in any way a privileged patient, the man who had given to medicine its most effective weapon against disease had died in the very heart of London without medical care. He died as he would have wished to die, in full possession of his strength, in full control of his fine intelligence. He died as he had lived, quietly, stoically, silently.


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