IN HIS cluttered research laboratory, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming made an accidental discovery that was to transform the world of modern medicines.
He was clearing his sink of a pile of petri-dishes, in which he had been growing bacteria, and was checking each one before discarding it. The contents of one dish caught his eye. Common fungal mould, like that found on stale bread, had grown and appeared to be killing off the harmful bacteria inside, staphylococcus aureus. Fleming conducted a series of tests on the fungus, penicillium notatum, and successfully isolated the antibiotic substance which he called penicillin.
“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for,” remarked Fleming in typically understated fashion.
What the Scottish scientist had found in September 1928 proved to be the greatest breakthrough in the treatment of infection the world had witnessed. At first it was underestimated by the medical community, but when Fleming’s work was taken on in the 1930s by chemists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who purified penicillin to a more useful treatment form, the scale of Fleming’s discovery became obvious.
British and American drug companies mass-produced penicillin and it was hailed as a medical miracle during the Second World War when it saved millions of lives by crippling the biggest wartime killer - medical wounds.
Fleming was born in 1881 at Lochfield, a farm near the small Ayrshire town of Darvel. Alec, as he was known, was one of eight children, and at 14 he left Scotland to study at Regent Street Polytechnic in London.
An unfulfilling office job with a shipping company followed before he won a scholarship to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School where he initially trained as a surgeon before switching his focus to bacteriology.
During the First World War, Fleming served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, working in the laboratory of a battlefield hospital in France. He was mentioned in dispatches but his exposure to the horrific battlefield wounds which claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers strengthened his resolve to develop a powerful and useful antiseptic.
In the early 1920s, again by accident, he discovered lysozyme, known in medical circles as “the little brother of penicillin”. An enzyme occurring in bodily fluids, including tears, lysozyme has a natural antibacterial affect. Fleming had sneezed into a bacteria-laced petri-dish and noticed several days later that the bacteria had been destroyed by the mucus. But lysozyme was not effective against the stronger infectious agents and Fleming kept searching until his monumental discovery several years later.
“Nature makes penicillin, I just found it,” he said at the time. Penicillin is today used commonly along with many other antibiotics to treat all kinds of bacteria and prevent the onset of infection.
Fleming was married twice, had one son and served as Rector of Edinburgh University from 1951 to 1954. He continued to work at St Mary’s laboratory until his death from a heart attack on 11 March 1955.
Fleming was knighted in 1944 and, along with Florey and Chain, received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. As a national hero, he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.