Fleming, Alexander (1888-1955)

fleming“On the bacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae,” [In The British Journal of Experimental Pathology Volume X, No. 3, June, 1929. Original printed wrappers, bound in red cloth].


Alexander Fleming is originally from Scotland, but received his medical education at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London.  He later became a professor of bacteriology in that same school.  The earlier of his two noteworthy discoveries was of the bacterial fighting properties of lysozymes, enzymes found in nasal secretions and other bodily fluids.  His inability to produce a concentrated form of lysozyme prevented it from being more successful (Cambridge 271).  But this was not Fleming’s most significant and memorable contribution to medicine.  In 1928, while working with cultured staphtlococcus bacteria, one of Fleming’s plates was contaminated with mold.  However, this contamination proved beneficial, since the mold actually killed the bacteria with which it had contact, thus demonstrating its bactericidal qualities.  Fleming cultured the mold and began performing additional experiments with it.  He found it to be harmless to animals but destructive to many disease-causing microorganisms, including staphylococcus, streptococcus, meningococcus and gonococcus (One Hund. Books 96).  The mold was named penicillium notatum, better known as penicillin.


The following year, Fleming announced his discovery in The British Journal of Experimental Pathology, with an article entitled “On the bacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae”, a paper which sparked the “age of antibiotics” (Heirs of Hippocrates 1187).  Also in 1929, an offprint of this work, covered in orange printed wrappers, was put out by H. K. Lewis & Co. Ltd.  The printer stated that only 150 copies were run, and today they are extremely rare.  Inserted in the Reynolds Library copy is a Henry Schuman Ltd. dealer note explaining that, at the time of Lawrence Reynolds’s purchase, only one other copy at the Yale Medical Library was known to exist.   Not even Fleming owned this edition, having neglected to keep an original for himself.  He ordered another reprinting of 250 copies in 1944.  However, the Reynolds owns an original offprint, one of three estimated to exist (One Hund. Books 96).


Fleming was not a chemist, and the lack of knowledge in this field hampered the success of penicillin for over a decade, since the drug was unstable and unpredictable in its existing form.  However, in 1940, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey of Oxford were able to make the necessary chemical alterations.  Within the next few years, knowledge of the drug spread, and the possibility of its usefulness in World War II prompted its production by large-scale manufacturers (Dict. Sci. Biog., Vol. 5 & 6, p. 30).  In 1945, Fleming, Chain and Florey shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of this life-saving medication.


Cambridge Illus. Hist. Med., p. 271; Dict. Sci. Biog., Vol. 5 & 6, p. 30; Heirs of Hippocrates, 1187; One Hund. Books, 96; Reynolds Historical Library, Rare books and coll., Vol. 2, 2-612 & 2-613.

Image: Sir Alexander Fleming delivering an address at Medical Society of the District of Columbia, Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.