The discoverer of penicillin

"People have called it a miracle. For once in my life as a scientist, I agree. It is a miracle, and it will save lives by thousands" - Sir Alexander Fleming, on the lifesaving potential of penicillin.

- A statement typical of a man known for understating his work and his quiet, unassuming nature.

Born in 1881, in a remote, rural part of Scotland, Alexander Fleming was the seventh in a long line of eight children. He grew up on an 800-acre farm, where his family worked, at least a mile away from the nearest house or school; nature proved to be his best teacher at least in his formative years. 
Urged by his elder brother Tom, a doctor, to move to London, "Alec", as he was fondly called, attended the Polytechnic School in Regent Street from the age of 14. He joined a shipping firm after his schooling but was not very inclined to that line of work. When the Boer War broke out in 1900, he promptly signed up for service, during the course of which he enhanced his shooting, swimming and water polo skills. His life was to change soon, as he inherited a legacy from an uncle and was encouraged to study medicine by his brother.


Fleming qualified with top scores and enrolled himself at St. Mary's, where he was to remain till the end of his illustrious career. Although he specialized in surgery, he switched to Bacteriology, in order to remain in St. Mary's. His working in the Inoculation Department proved to be a real turning point.

"I have been trying to point out that in our lives chance may have an astonishing influence and, if I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this - never to neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening. It may be - usually is, in fact - a false alarm that leads to nothing, but it may on the other hand be the clue provided by fate to lead you to some important advance." Alexander Fleming, during a lecture at Harvard


Paul Ehrlich, a German chemist-physician, developed "Salvarsan", a chemical treatment for syphilis in 1909. Fleming was one of the first to administer Salvarsan, through the new method of intravenous injection. 
Even as his practice grew, he came across several cases of bacterial infections among wounded soldiers during World War I. Fleming had a growing conviction that drugs like Salvarsan, could be developed to treat such bacterial infection even in wounds caused by exploding shells. His innovations in this vein laid the foundation to his work in later years. 
Post World War I, Fleming initiated research to develop an effective antiseptic, during the course of which he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme occurring in many body fluids, such as tears. Although lysozyme has a natural antibacterial effect, it was not effective against the strongest infectious agents.


Discovering Penicillin
It was fortunate that Fleming persisted in his search. In 1928 as he was clearing up a pile of Petri dishes with bacterial cultures in his lab, he noticed something extraordinary. Some mold was growing on one of the dishes around which all bacteria had been killed. A sample of the mold revealed it to be of the Penicillium family, and Penicillium Notatum. 
Although the antibacterial properties of Penicillium had been spoken about, Fleming was the first to realize their significance. He pursued work on his findings, and published a report on penicillin and its potential uses in 1929 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology.


By 1932, however he had shifted to other studies, only providing other researchers with samples of his mold, an unusual strain of Penicillium notatum. Howard Florey, a physiologist at the University of Oxford was one such recipient. Aided by an able chemist named Ernst Chain, Florey and his team conducted intense research to identify and isolate bacteria-killing substances from these molds, and experimenting on bacteria-infected mice. The results made history - demonstrating that injections of penicillin cured various infections, a discovery that took the world by storm.


Penicillin at work
The early forties saw the government establishing factories for penicillin production, just in time to save millions of lives during World War II. As more and more bacterial infections like pneumonia, syphilis, gonorrhea, diphtheria, scarlet fever, wound and childbirth infections were treated, deaths due to such causes diminished dramatically. Fleming's Penicillium notatum had thus sparked off a major breakthrough in medical science.
In recognition of his tremendous contribution, Alexander Fleming was honored with a knighthood in 1944. He was also joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine along with Florey and Chain in 1945.

He died of a heart attack in 1955 in London.