Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955):
Biologist & Pharmacologist
"I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all of medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic... But I guess that was exactly what I did."
~ Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming was born on a sheep farm in Lochfield, East Ayrshire. After spending four years working in a shipping office, the twenty-year-old Fleming inherited some money from his uncle. Alexander's older brother Tom, a physician, suggested that he follow the same career. Fleming enrolled at St. Mary's Hospital in London in 1901 and graduated with distinction in 1906. While a student, he was an active member of the Rifle Club, and the captain, with a strong desire to keep Fleming on the team, pressured him to stay at St. Mary's and join the research department after graduation instead of moving elsewhere to become a surgeon.
During the Great War, Fleming served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, where he saw many soldiers die of septicemia from infected wounds. The antiseptics being used killed patients' immunological defenses before it could kill invading bacteria. Fleming discovered that deep wounds sheltered anaerobic bacteria from antiseptic agents, which were also killing beneficial bacteria.
After returning to St. Mary's at the war's end, he began his search for an anti-bacterial agent, which came to fruition in 1928.
"When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all of medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic... But I guess that was exactly what I did."
~ Alexander Fleming 1
It was an accident resulting from his absent-mindedness that led to his discovery. After returning to his lab after a two-week holiday, Fleming saw that he had forgotten to cover his petrie dishes, which he had smeared with Staphylococcus bacteria before he left, and that they had become contaminated with fungus. As he was about to throw them out, he noticed in one dish a zone around an invading fungus where the bacteria had been unable to grow. He isolated an extract from the mold and correctly identified the agent as a member of the Penicillum genus; the rare spore had drifted into his lab from a mycology lab on the floor below.
Fleming's discovery spawned a huge pharmaceutical industry by the Second World War; synthetic penicillin was conquering such ancient plagues as staph infection, syphilis, gangrene, and tuberculosis. Fleming was knighted with the title of Baron in 1944 and received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945. He died in his home of a sudden heart attack at the age of sixty-nine.