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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Just about dinner-time Lady Fleming was called to the telephone. She heard a
completely-strange, deep, low, unpleasant voice, a 'dirty voice',
'You'd like to have that seal back, wouldn't you?'
Hesitantly, and with a strong feeling of repugnance, she
'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
'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
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
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
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
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
'No urgency whatsoever ... Look after your other patients
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
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.