Alexander Fleming

the Savior of Millions

A Brief Summary of the Life of Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming was born on August 6th, 1881 in Lochfield, Scotland. He was the third child of farmers Hugh Fleming and Grace Morten. As a boy, he attended three schools: the Louden Moore School, the Darvel School, and Kilmarnock Academy and when he moved with his brothers to London, he continued his education at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Following this, he worked in a post office for four years. After getting tired of the simple tasks he was performing at work, he made an example of his brother the doctor, and enrolled in the St. Mary’s Medical School in Paddington, where he excelled and graduated with honors. Upon getting his degree, he went off to serve as a doctor in WW1. During the war, Alexander witnessed the deaths of many of his comrades not from the mortally crippling wounds enacted on them by their enemies, but from the infections that broke out in normally non fatal wounds. You see, back then there was no way to clean the cut; water was too difficult to get under the skin and it would not actually kill the bacteria, only swish them around, and the chemicals that were already known to be able to kill bacteria were too caustic for human flesh. This drove Fleming to find a drug that would kill bacteria but not harm the victim receiving the treatment. This led to the discoveries of lysozyme in 1922, a substance that acts as an enzyme that dissolves microbial organisms, and most importantly penicillin in 1928, the drug that he was looking for. Penicillin is regarded as one of the, if not the greatest medical discovery in history; it has saved the lives of millions of people from infection. Penicillin possesses the ability to lys (destroy) bacteria similar to how lysozyme breaks down microbes. It is also a relatively unstable compound. It only remains as penicillin for the time it takes to cleanse the wound so it can’t deal any long term damage. What is most interesting is that he discovered penicillin by accident. When he came to work one day, he noticed that a healthy colony of moss was growing on one of the petri dishes from one of the experiments weeks before (he was notorious for being untidy). Fleming thought that that was rather odd considering that the dish should have been infested with harmful bacteria so like any great scientist, he got to the bottom of the case. Upon further inspection, he concurred that the moss naturally formed a ring around itself to protect itself from the foreign invaders, and the barrier was made of penicillin. However, these two discoveries were not his only contribution to science. He also did groundbreaking research on the topics of chemotherapy, bacteriology, and immunology, which were initially rejected by the scientific community for some reason or another. Over the course of his life Fleming was given more than 30 awards, including the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Alexander Fleming Biography

Video Questions

1. Other than infections, what did Fleming's comrades die of in WW1?


2. Which two scientists took up Fleming's work in the late 30's?

Impact on Society

Sadly, Fleming's work didn't really affect culture or anything social back in the 20's but it was the discovery of the decade and its use became extremely popular by soldiers in WW2. Also, aside from the discovery of penicillin, Fleming pioneered the fields of chemotherapy, bacteriology, and immunology, which served as a foundation for future studies that uncovered even more information on those fields.