Fleming, Sir Alexander

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) was one of three men who discovered and developed the first antibiotic, penicillin. Fleming was born on a farm in Scotland and worked in a shipping company as a youth. He hated the work, however, and when he received a small inheritance from a relative, he used it to go to medical school. Initially he worked for Almroth Wright, who believed strongly in the effectiveness of vaccinations to prevent disease. But Fleming thought there might be other ways to treat infections.

During World War I (1914-1918), Fleming was further inspired by the problems of wounded soldiers. Immunizations did nothing to stop the bacterial infections which tended to attack the wound sites. Fleming was determined to find a "magic bullet" substance that could destroy these invading bacteria. In 1922, he discovered that the body actually has enzymes in tears and mucus (slimy secretions) that, though weak, can kill certain bacteria very quickly.

In 1928 Fleming was still working on the properties of various bacteria when a little bit of luck led to his most important discovery. Fleming had left some microbes (bacteria samples) in dishes in his lab; he had also left the window open. Mold spores from outside landed in the dish and miraculously dissolved the bacteria. Fleming identified the mold as "Penicillium notatum," and he named the substance that actually killed the bacteria "penicillin." While Fleming proved that penicillin was not poisonous to animals, he did not have the means to actually synthesize (artificially create) a pure form of it to use in experiments. The practical purification of penicillin was the later achievement of Howard Walter Florey (1898-1968) and Ernst Boris Chain (1906-1979). Fleming, Horey, and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine for their combined research with penicillin.

After receiving the Nobel Prize, Fleming spent the rest of his career doing research at the Wright-Fleming Institute. Because of Fleming's momentous discovery, many previously incurable diseases are now easily treated, and the average human life span has been significantly increased.

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