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Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming Photo

Born on 6 August 1881, Sir Alexander Fleming was a physician, microbiologist and bacteriologist of Scottish origin credited with the discovery of Penicillin – an antibiotic. Fleming was born at Lochfield farm, a farm in Ayrshire, Scotland and both his parents Hugh Fleming and Grace Morton were farmers.

During his early years, Fleming attended the Louden Moor School, the Darvel School, and Kilmarnock Academy until at about the age of 13 he decided to move to London where he stayed with his step-brother, a practicing physician. Fleming attended the Royal Polytechnic Institution, now known as the University of Westminster and meanwhile worked as a shipping clerk to earn a living on the side. Fleming also served a brief stint in the army before following in the footsteps of his elder brother and pursuing a career in medicine. Fleming applied to St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School at the University of London in Paddington, London, was granted a scholarship to study medicine and spent the rest of his professional life there. In 1906, Fleming completed his MBBS degree with distinction and qualified as a doctor.

Fleming then set forth on honing his research skills by starting his research on vaccine therapy under the mentorship of Sir Almroth Wright at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School at the University of London. Fleming then went on to complete his BSc. degree in bacteriology and then took up the post of lecturer at St Mary’s.

During world war I (1914 onwards), Fleming served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, providing medical care and assistance to all army personnel and their families. It was then that Fleming while continuing his research in a makeshift lab set up in France, realized that antiseptics were not serving their core purpose and were contributing to more infections, which more and more soldiers succumbed to than enabling them to overpower infections.

Upon Fleming’s return to St Mary’s –post World War I – he continued to study antibacterial substances and the series of research experiments that helped him identify the regressing effects of antiseptics led him to make the first in the series of his many groundbreaking discoveries. While treating a cold, Fleming administered tests on the mucus emanating from the patient’s nose to find that the nasal mucus created an inhibitory effect on the growth of bacteria.  This inhibitory effect was generated by an enzyme, namely lysozyme, an enzyme found in human secretions such as tears, saliva, and mucus along with skin, hair, and nails. Despite the groundbreaking discovery, the enzyme did not contribute much in the quest for addressing disease-causing bacteria, and thus Fleming’s discovery was left at a standstill.

Fleming’s next noteworthy and career serving discovery came with his accidental discovery of Penicillin. In September 1928, before taking off for a vacation, Fleming had been studying a staphylococcus culture – an infection causing bacteria known for its disastrous effect on patients with compromised immune systems. Fleming had accidentally left the culture out in the open and returned to it a fortnight later to see mold growing all around the culture and having completely destroyed the bacteria. The temperature conditions of the lab had allowed for the mold to thrive, a finding retested by Fleming to establish the mold spore to belong to the genus Penicillium, and the substance released came to be known as penicillin.

Fleming realized that penicillin’s antibacterial properties could be used against diseases such as scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, and gonorrhea.

For his discovery and continued efforts in research on penicillin, Fleming jointly received a Nobel Prize with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. In 1944, Fleming was knighted, as a Knight Bachelor, by King George VI.

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