Scottish biologist and inventor Alexander Firming is widely regarded for his 1928 discovery of penicillin, a drug that is used to kill harmful bacteria. His work on immunology, bacteriology, and chemotherapy is considered groundbreaking and highly influential.
Early Life and Education:
Born in Ayrshire, Scotland on August 6, 1881 to Hugh Fleming and Grace Stirling Morton, Alexander Fleming was the third of the four children. He attended medical school in London, England and graduated in 1906. Fleming assisted in battlefield hospitals in France during World War I (1911-1918), where he observed that some soldiers, despite surviving their initial battlefield wounds, were dying of septicemia or some another infection only after a few years.
Contributions and Achievements:
Once the war was over, Fleming looked for medicines that would heal infections. The antiseptics of World War I were not totally efficient, and they primarily worked on a wound’s surface. Spraying an antiseptic made things even worse if the wound was deep.
Fleming came back to his laboratory in 1928 after a long vacation. He carried out an experiment and left several dishes with several bacteria cultures growing in them. After some time, he observed that some of the dishes were contaminated with a fungus, which ruined his experiment. He was about to discard the dishes, but he noticed that in one dish, the bacteria failed to grow in an area around the fungus.
He successfully isolated the fungus and established it was from the Penicillium group or genus. Fleming made his discovery public in 1929, however to a mixed reaction. While a few doctors thought penicillin, the antibiotic obtained from the Penicillium fungus, might have some importance as a topical antiseptic, the others were skeptical. Fleming was sure that the penicillin could also function inside the body. He performed some experiments to demonstrate that the genus of fungus had germ-killing power, even when it was diluted 800 times. Fleming tried to cultivate penicillin until 1940, but it was hard to grow, and isolating the germ-killing agent was even harder. He was unsure if it would ever work in a proper manner.
Luckily, a German Chemist, Ernst Chain, discovered the process to isolate and concentrate the germ-killing agent in penicillin some time later. Another Australian pharmacologist Howard Florey found out the ways of its mass production. During World War I, the goverments of U.S. and Great Britain funded Florey and Chain, therefore the penicillin almost became the magic spell that cured many diseases. Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.
Personal Life and Death:
Fleming married his first wife, Sarah, who died in 1949. Their only child, Robert Fleming, went on to become a general medical practitioner. Fleming married for the second time to Dr. Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas, with whom he worked at St. Mary’s, on 9 April 1953. She also died in 1986.
Fleming died of a heart failure in London in 1955.