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ALEXANDER FLEMING

Among the great advances recorded by the medical and biological sciences
in the 19th century, it is worth highlighting the establishment of the microbial
origin of infectious diseases, which we owe to researchers of the stature of
Louis Pasteury Robert Koch. However, despite the enormous efforts aimed
at the development of vaccines, many infectious diseases remained fatal, as
there was no means of combating them once contracted. In this context we
understand the importance of the discovery of a substance, penicillin, which
was capable of destroying pathogens without harming the organism. The
discovery of Alexander Fleming, in fact, not only had to save millions of
lives, but also revolutionize therapeutic methods, beginning the era of
antibiotics and modern medicine.

Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881 in Lochfield, Great Britain, in


the bosom of a peasant family settled in the Scottish plain. He was the third
of the four children remarried by Hugh Fleming, who died when Alexander
was seven years old, leaving his widow in the care of the family estate with
the help of the eldest of his stepchildren. Fleming received, until 1894, a
fairly rudimentary education, obtained with difficulty, which nevertheless
seems to have extracted the taste for detailed observation and the simple
disposition that would later characterize him.
When he was thirteen years old, he moved to London with a stepbrother who
worked there as a doctor. He completed his education with two courses held
at the Polytechnic Institute of Regent Street, then employed in the offices of
a shipping company. In 1900 he enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment
with the intention of participating in the Boer War, but it ended before his
unit arrived to embark. However, his taste for military life led him to remain
attached to his regiment, intervening in World War I as an officer of the Royal
Army Medical Corps in France.

At twenty, the inheritance of a small legacy led him to study medicine. He


obtained a scholarship to St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in Paddington,
an institution with which, in 1901, he began a relationship that would last his
entire life. In 1906 he joined the team of the bacteriologist Sir Almroth Wright,
with whom he was associated for forty years. In 1908 he graduated, obtaining
the gold medal of the University of London. Appointed professor of
bacteriology, in 1928 he became professor, retiring as an emeritus in 1948,
although he held until 1954 the direction of the Wright-Fleming Institute of
Microbiology, founded on his honor and on that of his former teacher and
colleague.

Fleming's professional career was dedicated to researching the defenses of


the human body against bacterial infections. His name is associated with two
important discoveries: lysozyme and penicillin. The second is, by far, the
most famous and also the most important from a practical point of view: both
are, nevertheless, related to each other, since the first of them had the virtue
of focusing its attention on the antibacterial substances that they could have
some therapeutic application.

Fleming discovered lysozyme in 1922, when he showed that the nasal


secretion had the ability to dissolve certain types of bacteria. He later proved
that this faculty depended on an active enzyme, lysozyme, which is present
in many of the body's tissues, although of restricted activity, which is
reflected in the pathogenic organisms that cause the diseases. Despite this
limitation, the finding proved to be highly interesting, since it demonstrated
the possibility that there were substances that, being harmless to the cells of
the organism, were lethal for bacteria. As a result of the investigations
undertaken by Paul Ehrlich thirty years earlier, medicine was already
following a result of this type, although the successes obtained had been
very limited.

The discovery of penicillin, one of the most important acquisitions of modern


therapeutics, had its origin in a fortuitous observation. In September 1928,
Fleming, during a study on the mutations of certain staphylococcal colonies,
found that one of the cultures had been accidentally contaminated by a
microorganism from outside air, a fungus later identified as Penicillium
notatum. His meticulousness led him to observe the behavior of the crop,
verifying that around the initial zone of contamination, the staphylococci had
become transparent, a phenomenon that Fleming correctly interpreted as an
effect of an antibacterial substance secreted by the fungus.

Once the latter was isolated, Fleming knew how to take advantage of the
limited resources at his disposal to reveal the properties of that substance.
Thus, he found that a pure culture broth of the fungus acquired, in a few
days, a considerable level of antibacterial activity. He conducted several
experiments aimed at establishing the degree of susceptibility to the broth of
a wide range of pathogenic bacteria, noting that many of them were rapidly
destroyed; By injecting the culture into rabbits and mice, it proved to be
harmless to leukocytes, which was a reliable index that should be harmless
to animal cells.

Eight months after his first observations, Fleming published the results
obtained in a memory that today is considered a classic in the matter, but
that at the time did not have much resonance. Although Fleming understood
from the beginning the importance of the antibiosis phenomenon he had
discovered (even very diluted, the substance had an antibacterial power far
superior to that of antiseptics as potent as carbolic acid), penicillin still took
about fifteen years to develop. in the therapeutic agent of universal use that
was to become.

The reasons for this delay are diverse, but one of the most important factors
that determined it was the instability of penicillin, which made its purification
an excessively difficult process for the available chemical techniques. The
solution to the problem came with the research carried out in Oxford by the
team led by the Australian pathologist Howard Florey and the German
chemist Ernst B. Chain, a refugee in England, who, in 1939, obtained an
important subsidy for the systematic study of substances antimicrobials
secreted by microorganisms. In 1941 the first satisfactory results were
obtained with human patients. The development of the Second World War
determined that sufficient resources were destined to the investigations so
that, as early as 1944, all the seriously wounded of the Battle of Normandy
could be treated with penicillin.

With a certain delay, fame finally reached Fleming, who was elected to the
Royal Society in 1942, received the title of Sir two years later and, finally, in
1945, he shared with Florey and Chain the Nobel Prize. He died in London on
March 11, 1955.