Sir Alexander Fleming – The Penicillin Discoverer

Sir Alexander Fleming was the first person to discover Penicillin which brought a miraculous change in the medical world. He was born on 6th August 1881 in Ayrshire, Scotland. The discovery of Penicillin was the first step taken to produce antibiotics to fight bacterial diseases. Sir Fleming discovered the Penicillin in 1928 which eventually led to developing drugs that helped the ailing soldiers in World War II. Without this discovery modern world is bound to perish fighting diseases like pneumonia, syphilis, gonorrhea, meningitis, rheumatic fever and so on. Sir Fleming’s discovery played a significant role behind the introduction of the modern pharmaceutical industry.

The Early Life of Alexander Fleming

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Source: Getty Images

Sir Fleming was born in Scotland. He grew up in a rural atmosphere of Litchfield, East Ayrshire. His parents were farmers, and they had four children. Sir Alexander was one of them. He also had another four half-siblings, the survivors of his father’s first marriage.

He began his schooling at Loudon Moor, and then he moved to Darvel School. He also attended Kilmarnock Academy. He eventually moved to London following his elder brother in 1895.

Life in London

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The Nobel Prize winners for 1945 are, left to right: Artturi Virtanen for Chemistry, Alexander Fleming and Ernst Boris Chain for Medicine, Gabriela Mistral for Literature, and Howard Walter Florey for Medicine.

Sir Fleming left Scotland when he was 13 years old. He went to London and began to live with his brother Thomas who was a physician. He started working as a clerk in a shipping office, but in time he found it quite unexciting.

Sir Fleming’s uncle left a small amount of money for him which helped him considerably to fund his expense to study in a medical school. He joined St Mary’s Medical School to be doctor following his brother’s footsteps.

Fleming’s Mentor

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Sir Almroth Wright – (10 August 1861 – 30 April 1947) was a British bacteriologist and immunologist. Source: offgridweb.com

After joining St Mary’s Medical School, Sir Fleming got acquainted with Almroth Wright who at that time was the Head of the Inoculation Department. He was fond of Sir Fleming and asked his apprentice to stay at St Mary’s after finishing his academic studies.

Almroth Wright was a renowned researcher who understood the fact that infectious diseases could be treated with proper vaccines. He had enough influence on Sir Fleming to convince him to stay at St Mary’s as a Medical Bacteriologist.

Helping the Ailing Soldiers During WWI

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The Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) best known for his discovery of penicillin, with his wife Amalia Courteous after their marriage. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

During World War I, Sir Fleming was stationed at a wound-research facility in Boulogne, France. He was one of the members of the research team which was led by Wright. He eventually found that the antiseptics being used to treat wounds didn’t have any positive effect on the injury.

The antiseptics were worsening the wound by destroying leukocytes. So, he advised that the injury should be clean and dry, and no disinfectant must be used. However, his advice was not taken seriously back then.

The Discovery of Lysozyme

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8th September 1945: Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, and discoverer of penicillin being decorated with the Legion of Honour at the Academy of Medicine in Paris, by General Charles de Gaulle. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Sir Fleming is also remembered for his discovery of lysozyme- a substance that can be found in human body fluids. He discovered it back in 1928 when he was sick, and a drop of mucus from his nose fell into a culture of bacteria. He, later on, found that the mucus dropped onto the culture had obliterated the bacteria.

This discovery was quite important as it was Sir Fleming very first significant discovery. The development of lysozyme made it clear that the human body has a self-defense mechanism and the body fluids containing lysozyme are the first lines of defense.

The Groundbreaking Discovery

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Sir Alexander Fleming in His Laboratory. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sir Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 when he was studying Staphylococcus which is responsible for boils and also can generate severe infections. While researching, Fleming decided to go on a vacation which made him leaving some amount of staphylococcus culture on the lab-bench. The culture was supposed to be in the incubator, but unfortunately or instead, fortunately, in this case, Sir Fleming left it out open in his lab.

When he got back, he found that the bacteria had been destroyed and there weren’t any left in the culture. To his utter surprise, he found a particular type of mold mixed into the culture.

The mold was responsible for the inhibition of the bacteria from the culture. Sir Fleming, then, held some experiments to find out which mold was accountable for the destruction of bacteria. Finally, he concluded that only a particular type of mold named Penicillium notatum had the antibacterial essence. He called it “Penicillin.”

Making Penicillin A Gettable Medicine

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20th February 1952: British bacteriologist and Nobel laureate Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) is chaired by students from McEwan Hall after being installed as Rector of Edinburgh University. Fleming was born in Ayrshire and educated at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where he served as Professor of Bacteriology (1928 – 1948).

Sir Fleming, soon, understood that Penicillin could be more powerful substance than lysozyme, he began his research to isolate the antibiotic substance from the mold. He appointed two other researchers to help him, but unfortunately, the three of them failed to do so.

Later on, other scientists followed Sir Fleming’s footsteps and started researching on penicillin. Two scientists from Oxford University, Howard Florey, and Ernst Chain, successfully produced purified penicillin. The pharmaceutical companies began producing penicillin as available drugs, and it was significantly used to save lives in World War II.

Winning The Prestigious Nobel

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UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 02: Culture flasks growing penicillin, 1943. Racks of glass culture flasks growing penicillin, taken by James Jarche for Illustrated magazine in 1943. The material in the flasks is called the ‘felt’. This is the form the penicillin mould takes during the latter stages of its growth before the penicillin antibiotic is extracted. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

Sir Fleming got knighted in 1944 along with Florey. Sir Fleming was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for his contribution in discovering Penicillin. Florey and Chain were also awarded Nobel along with Sir Fleming for the same cause as the three of them were responsible for the discovery and the production of penicillin.

The relationship between the three scientists got bitter as they couldn’t decide whose contribution should be recognized as the most critical step. The press favored Sir Fleming as he was the only one among them to appear before the media quite often.

Shower of Honors

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15th February 1944: Bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) explains the theory of the production of penicillin from the bottle of mould he is holding, to three Turkish doctors, Professor Tugan, Dr. Aksell and Dr. Taskiran. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Sir Fleming eventually became the head of Inoculation Department of St. Mary’s succeeding Almroth Wright. He was also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science and became an honorary member of nearly every other medical and scientific fraternity around the world. He became the President of the Society for General Microbiology.

He became the rector of Edinburgh University, and he achieved honorary doctorate degrees from several European and American universities.

Penicillin- The Miracle Drug

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Queen Elizabeth II dubbing Dr. Charles Alexander Fleming, of Wellington, as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), when she held an investiture in Wellington Town Hall. Sir Charles received the knighthood for services to science and conservation. (Photo by Ron Bell/PA Images via Getty Images)

Penicillin worked wonders during World War II and saved innumerable lives of the soldiers. It was used to stop infections. Before the invention of penicillin, infections were fatal and took many lives. Sir Fleming witnessed the devastation of that in World War I, but the invention of penicillin lessened the death toll in the WWII. Less than 1% of soldiers died from bacterial diseases in the WWII, whereas 18% of soldiers died of the same cause in the WWI.

Penicillin fights the bacteria, and it inhibits or destroys the growth of it. It is used in cases of syphilis, throat infections, meningitis and many other infections. It was called “miracle drugs” because of its life-saving feat in WWII.

Sir Fleming’s Legacy

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The helmet and barbed wire show penicillin’s importance in World War II. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Sir Fleming’s invention of penicillin changed the history of medicine world. His discovery propelled the growth of the pharmaceutical industry and made the drug companies invest money to produce life-saving drugs by appointing more scientists. The scientists, then, were encouraged to research and find a solution to fight lethal diseases.

Penicillin first was used to fight bacterial infections, but soon the researchers made it capable enough to fight other diseases like respiratory problems, skin problems, etc.

Sir Fleming- An Inspiration

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The widow, Lady Fleming, follows the coffin of her husband, penicillin discoverer Sir Alexander Fleming, into St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for the funeral service. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Since the discovery of penicillin, the researchers tried to find and improve its capability. Today new types of drugs are being invented to fight diseases like piperacillin, oxacillin, nafcillin, etc. The researchers are now studying molds to make different kinds of drugs and medicine. If there weren’t any penicillin, the world would have to see more deaths in the hands of bacterial diseases. Penicillin saved so many lives that it became the ‘miracle drug’ soon after its invention.

Modern drug companies are researching different types of bacteria to understand their resistance against drugs. The scientists have found that bacteria which could have been destroyed by penicillin before are forming a resistance against the drugs. So, the research is going on to see new antibiotics to fight the diseases. All of these are going on only because of Sir Fleming’s invention of penicillin.