Alexander Fleming And The Discovery Of Penicillin

Alexander Fleming discovered the wonder drug penicillin by accident.

The British bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming was born August 6, 1881. During his years of research on antibiotics, he discovered penicillin. Born in Lochfield, Scotland, this son of a Scottish farmer was reared on a big farm. When his father died, Alexander (or, Alec) took over the running of the farm. Tom Fleming, one of Alexander's brothers, left home to study medicine and opened his own practice in London.

Sometime after that, four of the Fleming brothers and one sister all lived together in London. Alec went to London when he was only 14 years old and after finishing school, he worked at a shipping firm. By 1900, the Boer War had begun between the United Kingdom and its colonies in southern Africa. Alec and two of his brothers joined a Scottish regiment. When Alec's uncle died, he left Alec and each of his siblings 250 pounds, and Tom Fleming encouraged Alec to study medicine and join him in his practice.

After reaching top scores on the examinations, Alec had the freedom to choose which medical school he wanted to attend. He chose St. Mary's in London and decided on the study of bacteriology. After graduating with merit in 1906, he studied in London under Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy. By 1909, Paul Ehrlich, a German chemist and physician, had unearthed a treatment for syphilis from a chemical called salvarsan. Very few physicians were allowed to even administer this special treatment, but Dr. Alec Fleming was chosen as one of them, and in no time his practice doubled with patients.

Dr. Fleming began searching for antibiotic enzymes that attacked various types of bacteria, but World War I interrupted his studies when he served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. Fleming was bothered by the fact that the soldiers were dying from simple infections, and he felt that there had to be a chemical similar to salvarsan that could attack infections in wounds caused by exploding shells. He continued with his research in hopes of finding a cure.

In 1915, Fleming married Sarah Marion, an Irish woman, but she died in 1949. They had a son who later became a physician. In 1953, he married again, this time to Dr. Ama lia Koutsouri-Voureka, a Greek colleague at St. Mary's. While searching for a capable antiseptic in St. Mary's lab in the 1920s, he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme found in body fluids such as tears. But the enzyme wasn't quite strong enough, so he kept searching. Fleming had so many studies going on in his lab that it was often cluttered, but this turned out to be a good thing.

In 1928 while organizing a pile of petri dishes in the sink where he had been growing bacteria, Fleming opened each dish and examined it before dropping it into the cleaning mixture. A particular one caught his attention. Mold was growing on one of the dishes, which was supposed to happen, but he discovered that it had contaminated a staphylococcus culture and stopped the bacteria's growth. It fact, it had actually killed it. After taking a sample of the mold, he found that it was from the penicillium family. He named it penicillin and found that it was nontoxic and sufficient in treating many types of bacteria harmful to man.

Fleming contributed his findings to the medical world in 1929, but few seemed interested. He even published a report on the benefits of penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. Although Fleming continued working with the mold for some time, a team of chemists and mold specialists eventually took over the work. The research was slowed when several of them died or moved away.

Unfortunately, the interest in penicillin did not peak again until World War II, and Howard Florey and Ernst Chain picked up the research again, found a way to purify it, and presented this powerful antibiotic to the world. Dr. Fleming and his many years of research were not forgotten. He was knighted in 1944 and shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine with British scientist Ernst Boris Chanin and Sir Howard Walter Florey. In 1947 Dr. Fleming became director of the Wright-Fleming Institute of St. Mary's Hospital.

Dr. Alexander Fleming died on March 11, 1955, at the age of 73, and his remains rest at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

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