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Alexander Fleming

Lived 1881 1955.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, whose use has saved untold millions of lives. Less wellknown is that before making this world-changing discovery, he had already made significant
contributions to medical science.

Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881 at his parents farm located near the small town of
Darvel, in Scotland, UK.
His parents, Hugh Fleming and Grace Stirling Morton, were both from farming families. His fathers
health was fragile; he died when Alexander was just seven years old.
Alexanders earliest schooling, between the ages of five and eight, was at a tiny moorland school
where 12 pupils of all ages were taught in a single classroom.
Darvel School was Alexanders next school, which involved an eight-mile round trip walk every
school-day. At the age of 11 his academic potential was recognized and he was awarded a
scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy, where he boarded for about two years before leaving for the
city of London.

Alexander arrived in London early in 1895, aged 13. This was the year his fellow Scot, Arthur Conan
Doyle, published The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which readers were horrified to learn that their
hero had died falling over the Reichenbach Falls.
Alexander lived in the home of an older brother, Tom, who was a doctor of medicine. Most of the
Fleming family ended up living with Tom, leaving the eldest brother, Hugh, running the farm.
Alexander attended the Polytechnic School, where he studied business and commerce. He started
in a class appropriate to his age, but his teachers soon realized he needed more challenging work.
He was moved into a class with boys two years older than him and finished school aged 16.

Work and Medical School

His business training helped him get a job in a shipping office, but he did not enjoy working there.
In 1901, at the age of 20, he inherited some money from his uncle, John Fleming. He decided to use
the money to go to medical school; he wanted to become a doctor like his successful brother Tom.
First, he needed suitable qualifications to enable him to join a medical school. This did not present
any great difficulties; he passed his exams with the highest marks of any student in the United
In 1903, aged 22, Alexander enrolled at Londons St Marys Hospital Medical School, graduating with
distinction three years later as Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery.
Rather than follow in Toms footsteps, Alexander was persuaded by Almroth Wright, an authority in
immunology, to become a researcher in his bacteriology group at St Marys Hospital Medical School.
While carrying out this research Fleming graduated, in 1908, with a degree in bacteriology and the
Gold Medal for top student. St Marys Hospital Medical School then promoted him to the role of
bacteriology lecturer.
Almroth Wright was interested in our bodies natural ability to fight infection. Fleming became
particularly fascinated by the fact that, although many people suffered bacterial infections from time
to time, the majority of peoples natural defenses prevented infections from taking hold.

Flemings Most Significant Contributions to

Proving that Antiseptics Kill rather than Cure

In 1914 World War 1 broke out and Fleming, aged 33, joined the army, becoming a captain in the
Royal Army Medical Corps, working in field hospitals in France.
There, in a series of brilliant experiments, he established that antiseptic agents used to treat wounds
and prevent infection were actually killing more soldiers than the infections were!
The antiseptics, such as carbolic acid, boric acid and hydrogen peroxide, were failing to kill bacteria
deep in wounds; worse, they were in fact lowering the soldiers natural resistance to infection
because they were killing white blood cells.
Fleming demonstrated that antiseptic agents were only useful in treating superficial wounds, but
were harmful when applied to deep wounds.
Almroth Wright believed that a saline solution salt water should be used to clean deep wounds,
because this did not interfere with the bodys own defenses and in fact attracted white cells. Fleming
proved this result in the field.
Wright and Fleming published their results, but most army doctors refused to change their ways,
resulting in many preventable deaths.

Nurses come to the aid of a wounded soldier. Fleming saved many soldiers lives in World War One by
washing deep wounds with saline solution rather than the antiseptics recommended by medical textbooks.

Discovery of Lysozyme
In 1919 Fleming returned to research at St Marys Hospital Medical School in London. His wartime
experience had firmly established his view that antibacterial agents should only be used if they
worked with the bodys natural defenses rather than against them; in particular, they must not harm
white blood cells.
His first discovery of such an agent came in 1922, when he was 41 years old.

Fleming had taken secretions from inside the nose of a patient suffering from a head cold. He
cultured the secretions to grow any bacteria that happened to be present. In the secretions, he
discovered a new bacterium he called Micrococcus lysodeikticus, now called M luteus.
A few days later, Fleming was examining these bacteria. He himself was now suffering from a head
cold, and a drop of mucus fell from his nose on to the bacteria. The bacteria in the area the drop had
fallen were almost instantly destroyed. Always on the lookout for natural bacteria killers, this
observation excited Fleming enormously.
He tested the effect of other fluids from the body, such as blood serum, saliva, and tears, on these
bacteria and found that bacteria would not grow where a drop of one of these fluids had been
Fleming discovered the common factor in the fluids was an enzyme.
He named his newly discovered enzyme lysozyme. The effect of lysozyme was to destroy certain
types of microbe, rendering them harmless to people. The presence of lysozyme in our bodies
prevents some potentially pathogenic microbes from causing us harm. It gives us natural immunity to
a number of diseases.
However, lysozymes usefulness as a medicine is rather limited, because it has little or no effect on
many other microbes that infect humans.
It did, however, mean that Fleming had discovered a natural antibiotic which did not kill white blood
cells. If only he could find a more powerful antibiotic, then medicine could be transformed.
Today, lysozyme is used as a food and wine preservative. It is naturally present in especially large
concentrations in egg-whites, offering protection against infection to chicks.
It is also used in medicines, particularly in Asia, where it is used in treatments for head colds,
athletes foot and throat infections.

Lysozyme is shown here in blue. It is an enzyme, meaning it is a type of protein. It destroys bacteria by
breaking down their cell walls, shown in pink.


Discovery of Penicillin
In the month of August 1928, Fleming did something very important. He enjoyed a long vacation with
his wife and young son.

On Monday, September 3, he returned to his laboratory and saw a pile of Petri dishes he had left on
his bench. The dishes contained colonies ofStaphylococcus bacteria. While he was away, one of his
assistants had left a window open and the dishes had become contaminated by different microbes.
Annoyed, Fleming looked through the dishes and found something remarkable had taken place in
one of them.
A fungus was growing and the bacterial colonies around it had been killed. Farther from the fungus,
the bacteria looked normal. Excited by his observation, he showed the dish to an assistant, who
remarked on how similar this seemed to Flemings famous discovery of lysozyme.
Hoping he had discovered a better natural antibiotic than lysozyme, Fleming now devoted himself to
growing more of the fungus. He identified that it belonged to the Penicillium genus and that it
produced a bacteria-killing liquid. On March 7, 1929 he formally named the antibiotic it would be
known as penicillin.
Fleming published his results, showing that penicillin killed a variety of bacteria which were then the
scourge of humanity, including those responsible for scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis and
diphtheria. Furthermore, penicillin was non-toxic and it did not attack white blood cells.
Unfortunately, the scientific world was largely underwhelmed, ignoring his discovery.
Fleming faced a number of problems:

it was difficult to isolate penicillin from the fungus producing it

he could not find a way of producing penicillin in high concentrations

penicillin seemed to be slow acting

clinical tests of penicillin as a surface antiseptic showed it was not especially effective

Flemings boss, Almroth Wright, had a generalized dislike of chemists and refused to allow
them in his laboratory. The presence of a skilled chemist would have been a huge benefit in
terms of isolating, purifying, and concentrating penicillin.

Regardless of these issues, Fleming continued with some work on penicillin in the 1930s, but never
made the breakthrough he needed to produce it in large, concentrated quantities. Others, however,
In the early 1940s a large team of University of Oxford scientists led by pharmacologist Howard
Florey and biochemist Ernst Boris Chain finally transformed penicillin into the medicine we know

In 1945 Alexander Fleming shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with Florey and Chain.
The award was made:
for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.
In his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1945, Fleming warned of a danger which today is becoming
ever more pressing:


Fleming was always fulsome in his praise for Florey, Chain, and their team, and he downplayed his
own role in penicillins story. Despite his modesty, he became a worldwide hero. Millions of people
owed their lives to the antibiotic he had discovered.
In 1945 he toured America, where chemical companies offered him a personal gift of $100,000 as a
mark of respect and gratitude for his work. Typically of Fleming, he did not accept the gift for himself:
he donated it to the research laboratories at St Marys Hospital Medical School.

Some Personal Details and the End

In 1915, while a captain in the Medical Corps, Fleming married Sarah Marion McElroy. Their only
son, Robert, became a general medical practitioner.
In 1944 he was knighted and became Sir Alexander Fleming.

His wife Sarah died in 1949.

In 1953 Fleming married Dr. Amalia Koutsouri-Voureka, who was working in his research group at St
Marys Hospital Medical School.
Alexander Fleming died aged 73 of a heart attack in London on March 11, 1955. His ashes were
placed in St Pauls Cathedral.