The field of chemistry is rife with some of the brightest minds in history; their contributions to the discipline have shaped the future of humanity. And one of the most famous chemists to have graced the world is Alexander Fleming.
Alexander Fleming was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on August 6, 1881, and died March 11, 1955, in London. This Scottish bacteriologist is remembered for discovering penicillin and sparking a breakthrough in chemistry, biology, and medicine.
Penicillin might be his most significant discovery, but he was also remembered for his work on wound infection and lysozyme.
His efforts towards the latter substance – an antibacterial enzyme naturally found in tears and saliva – cemented his name in the history of bacteriology and chemistry.
While Fleming's work was mainly as a bacteriologist, it carved a new path in the fields of chemistry and biology. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain built on his findings to isolate and mass-produce penicillin.
It is impossible to talk about modern medicine without crediting Alexander Fleming. His discovery of penicillin in 1928 spurned the antibiotic revolution and came to be known as one of the landmark moments for healthcare and pharmacology.
He was credited for this groundbreaking achievement in 1945 when he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, sharing the accomplishment with both Florey and Chain. Alongside Marie Curie, Fleming became one of the only scientists who shared his Nobel prize.
Fleming was the seventh child in a Scottish family, and his childhood in the country fields of Scotland helped hone his inquisitive eye for observation.
He began his schooling at Darvel and Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London in 1895, where he completed his education at Regent Street Polytechnic.
Initially, he worked as a shipping clerk in London before starting his medical studies at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in 1908. During this time, he won the gold medal from the University of London for his academic performance.
Fleming had hoped to become a surgeon but shifted his plans after working temporarily at the laboratory in the St Mary's Hospital's Inoculation Department.
There, he became interested in bacteriology, working under the apprenticeship of bacteriologist Almord Edward Wright, who had been working on some new ideas regarding vaccine therapy.
As world war I started, Fleming was stationed in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During his service, he worked as a bacteriologist, inspecting infections caused by wounds in a makeshift lab in Boulogne, France.
Here, he noticed that antiseptics were not particularly effective and seemed to be doing more harm than good. Compelling him to attribute this to the diminishing effects of the natural immunity agents within the human body that could not match up to bacteria.
More soldiers seemed to be affected by antiseptic treatment, compromising their immunity to stave off infections. To this, he recommended that the wounds should be cleaned and kept away from moisture. However, his advice was ignored.
He returned to St Mary's upon completing his war service, getting the assistant director position at the Inoculation Department in 1918. Before the war, he also worked privately as a venereologist from 1904 to 1914.
During his practice, he was the first British doctor to administer arsphenamine for syphilis, a drug treatment recommended by Paul Ehrlich from Germany in 1910.
At the height of his prominence, he took the position of the principal of the Inoculation Department in 1946, succeeding Wright. Therefore, the institute was renamed the Wright-Fleming Institute.
His multiple discoveries have shaped scientific history; let's discuss how he stumbled upon some of them:
Fleming's first significant discovery was in 1921 when he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme found in bodily fluids like saliva and tears.
Similar to his breakthrough discovery of penicillin, he also found lysozyme by chance: he accidentally expelled mucus onto a dish of bacteria.
Thanks to his sharp mind, he quickly realized his mucus might have affected the bacteria's growth, and he went about mixing it onto the plate.
After leaving the plate for a few weeks, he noticed that the bacteria had been dissolved.
Just like Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization by chance, Fleming unknowingly followed the path of many scientists who stumbled upon their discoveries by accident.
This insight proved to be quite valuable in understanding how the body naturally fights bacteria. However, lysozyme was not particularly adept at fighting pathogenic bacteria.
Fleming's most significant breakthrough, and the one he's most famous for, happened on September 3, 1928.
He was in his laboratory when a culture plate of Staphylococcus aureus he was working on caught his eye.
The plate seemed to have been contaminated by mold, and on further inspection, he found that it was inhibiting the growth of bacteria.
This mold, which he identified as Penicillium notatum, was the key reason behind why bacteria had stopped growing in certain spots on the plate.
Initially, he labeled this inhibitory substance 'mold juice' as a joke but changed it to penicillin, based on the name of the mold that was producing it.
He found that it was not an enzyme on further inspection, as he had initially thought it to be similar to lysozyme.
This was an antibiotic and among the first to be discovered. The unique substance piqued caught his eye, and he went about investigating further.
By discovering a life-saving element, Fleming joined a list of scientists that includes names like Louis Pasteur.
He always had a knack for research, and he spent his time trying to understand the implications of this substance.
But although his eye for detail helped him identify it, further development on penicillin needed multidisciplinary teamwork. Therefore, he brought along two other researchers to make progress.
Unfortunately, their efforts proved to be in vain, and the team was unable to stabilize and purify penicillin. However, Fleming successfully identified the clinical potential that penicillin held as a topical antiseptic and antibiotic.
Eventually, World War II happened, and the need for rapid treatment of wounded soldiers escalated. A team of chemists led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain answered the call and created one of the most useful medical and chemistry discoveries.
This was the development of penicillin at the University of Oxford for mass production. Florey, Chain, and Alexander Fleming went on to share the 1945 Nobel Prize for this discovery.
However, controversy came to haunt this win, with disputes about credit arising. Although the press emphasized Fleming's role due to his initial discovery of the substance, naysayers attributed it to a chance.
Unlike Crick and Watson, who built on Rosalind Franklin's achievements and were lauded for their work on DNA structures, Fleming became known as the man who discovered penicillin, although he didn't have much to do with it being sold on a mass scale.
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Later Years And Honors
In 1946, Fleming became the head of the Inoculation Department at St Mary's Hospital, succeeding Almroth Edward Wright, with the department being renamed to the Wright-Fleming Institute.
Also, Fleming served as the president of the Society for General Microbiology, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science,
Alongside those responsibilities, he was also named an honorary member of several esteemed medical and scientific societies worldwide.
Furthermore, while he was studying at St Mary's, he won the gold medal for his performance as part of the Territorial Army from 1900 to 1914 in the London Scottish Regiment.
During his service as a bacteriologist, he was knighted in the year 1944. He also played a role in academia, being named the rector of the Edinburgh University from 1951 to 1954.
To add to his fast-filling cabinet of achievements, he received honorary doctorate degrees from numerous universities in Europe and America, amassing over 30 advanced degrees.
Alexander Fleming also served as a freeman of several municipalities and spent the last decades of his life as a celebrity, being known as the man who discovered penicillin.
Although he was shy, not very good at communication, he seemed to thrive under the attention, cementing his place among the most famous chemists in history.
While Joseph Priestley will be remembered as the scientist who discovered oxygen, Fleming will be remembered as the scientist who discovered antibiotics.
Fleming breathed his last breath on March 11, 1955, succumbing to a heart attack at his London residence.
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