of subject may seem surprising. I have written about poets and novelists and
men of action; never about research-workers. That in itself was a good
reason for doing so. In an age when science is transforming human life for
better or for worse, it is natural that we should take an interest in the
scientist, in the way his mind works, in the nature of his investigations.
But why Fleming? I might answer, plausibly enough, that the
importance of his discovery was sufficiently great to determine my choice.
As it turns out, however, the initial decision was not mine at all. In
November 1955 I received a letter from Lady Fleming in which she said that
she very much wanted me to write a life of her husband, who had died in the
early part of that year. The suggestion excited me and I replied that I was
prepared to discuss it.
Lady Fleming came to see me in Paris. Being, herself, a
doctor and a bacteriologist, she was able to explain very exactly the nature
of the problems with which I should have to deal. She promised to make her
husband's papers available to me. But, persuasive though she was and tempted
though I felt to try my hand on so unfamiliar a subject, I was still
uncertain about my ability to do what she wanted and asked for more time in
which to think over the proposal.
There were good reasons for my hesitation. For one thing, a
scientist, I thought, would produce a far better book than I could hope to
and, for another, the character of Fleming, a silent and secretive man,
would be difficult to portray. But difficulty is itself a challenge and I
felt eager to accept it. Several French friends — Professor Robert Debre and
Professor Georges Portmann, who had known Fleming, as well as Dr Albert
Delaunay of the Pasteur Institute, who promised to instruct me in such
bacteriological knowledge as I should need — were encouraging.
I began my literary career as a young man with The
Silences of Colonel Bramble,
a taciturn Scot. There would, I felt, be a certain satisfying intellectual
symmetry about writing, in my old age, The
Silences of Professor Fleming. The
two men had much the same virtues, though in different forms. The mixture of
quiet humour, of loyalty and independence, of reserve and intelligence, were
precisely what I found attractive. To cut a long story short, I said 'yes*.
I do not regret my decision. By studying at close range the
methods and the way of life of those who are engaged in scientific research,
I have learned a great deal. But there is more to it than that. I very soon
realized that there was no lack of human drama in an existence which on the
surface appeared to be remarkably uniform. The relationship between Fleming
and his master, Almroth Wright, contained a number of dramatic elements. To
live in a laboratory is to be one of a group, and this life I have done my
best to describe. As to my hero, the better I got to know him, the more
attractive did I find him.
I should never have been able to collect the necessary
evidence and documentary material but for the unwearying and generous help
given to me by Lady Fleming. Thanks to her, I was able, on my visits to
London, to meet almost all those — scientists, doctors and friends — who had
played a part in Fleming's career. Among them I was surprised and delighted
to renew acquaintance with Dr G. W. B. James to whom the 'Dr O'Grady' of my
first book owed so many of his paradoxical and brilliant ideas. The threads
of which our lives are woven sometimes cross in the most unexpected, strange
and helpful manner.
To mention by name all those who have been so kind as to tell
me, to write to me, or otherwise to record their memories, would make too
long a list. They will be found mentioned in the course of this book
wherever I have occasion to quote from them. Let me here express the
gratitude I feel. First and foremost I wish to thank Lady Fleming, but for
whom this book would never have been written; and, next in order, Mr Robert
Fleming, Sir Alexander's brother, who has provided me with many invaluable
details of his early life. I am no less beholden to Dr Albert Delaunay who
not only undertook, with great patience, my instruction in a field of
knowledge which for me was strange and difficult, but also read more than
once my manuscript and proofs. Finally I owe a debt to Professor Cruickshank
who, as Fleming's successor as Director of the Wright-Fleming Institute, has
done me the honour of writing the Introduction to this volume.