Author: Frank Donnelly

This new series of LOCAL HEROES will feature from time to time Darvel people past and present from all walks of life — some who have lived among us, others who have achieved international fame such as Sir Alexander Fleming. There are local heroes from sport, politics, work, and the arts. These articles were written by Frank Donnelly and first appeared in the Valley Advertiser during the 12 years when he was the editor of this local quarterly newspaper.

Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) – Discoverer of Penicillin

Lochfield Farm lies four miles north of Darvel. Extending to some 800 acres, its boundary forms part of the division between Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. To the north is the Whitelee Forest Wind Farm, to the west, the Glen Water. The road to Lochfield extends for over a mile off the “Five Mile Road” from Darvel.

It was here, on 6th August 1881 that Alexander Fleming was born. He was the seventh child of a family of eight. From his earliest years he grew to know the countryside and its wild life as few town dwellers could ever hope to do. The Fleming children found their amusements in guddling trout in the burns, trapping rabbits in the hills, searching for birds’ nests and seeing nature change from season to season.

When he was five Alex began his formal schooling at Loudoun Overmoor School House, about a mile from Lochfield on the “Five Mile Road”. There were rarely more than a dozen pupils of ages ranging from five to ten years at this one room and one teacher school. There were no examinations and only the occasional visit of an inspector. Modern educationists might shudder at such conditions, but Fleming asserted that he received the best part of his education at this little school.

Later, Alec attended Darvel School. Each day he had to walk the four miles from Lochfield to the school and back. With growing perception he learned much from his daily walk over the hills, which incidentally built up in him such stamina and endurance that in adult years he was a man who rarely knew fatigue. For a time he attended Kilmarnock Academy before leaving for London to join his brother Tom, an optician, who eventually practised in Harley Street. In London, Alex resumed his studies at Regent Street Polytechnic, but found that he was two years in advance of the standards there. Leaving school at sixteen he made a brief sojourn in commerce as junior clerk in a shipping office, but soon gave this up to enter a medical career as a student in St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1902 he sat a scholarship examination and gained first place competing against the top brains of the country. Indeed he was awarded first place in every examination he took throughout his career. He was a brilliant student, for his was a keenly incisive intelligence which could cut through a mass of information to sift out and retain only the relevant parts.

In 1906 he passed the L.R.C.P examination and was offered a temporary junior post in the laboratory of the great bacteriologist, Almroth Wright. This he accepted, little dreaming that it would be here that he would work for most of the rest of his life, and here that he would make one of the greatest discoveries in medical history.

The work in Wright’s laboratory suited him and soon became his main enthusiasm. In those days the work of the laboratory was mainly directed to exploring the development of curing diseases by inoculation. It was not long before Fleming, with the publication of his papers on a variety of subjects, began to be noticed, not merely as one of Wright’s assistants, but as a bacteriologist in his own right. During World War 1, Fleming continued his research work as a Captain in the Medical Corps carrying out autopsies on dead soldiers many of whom died from septicaemia caused by open wounds being infected by the mud of the battlefields in Flanders.

After the War ended Fleming was responsible for the discovery in 1922 of Lysozyme, an antiseptic which improved greatly the healing of wounds after operations. Then in 1928, while he was experimenting in the laboratory, a stray spore of a mould found its way on to a culture plate which he was using. His mind, conditioned by those earlier experiments, noticed the unusual effects of the mould spores on the bacteria on the Petry dish. Fleming acted at once and managed to preserve a minute specimen of the mould. He used a crude culture of extract from the mould on various bacteria with startling results. The mould was later recognised as one of the rarer members of the Penicillia group, Penicillium Notatum. Fleming gave it the name penicillin.

Thus penicillin, in its crude form, was discovered in 1928, but it was not until the 1940s that the world at large learned of it. During the intervening years work went ahead, despite many setbacks, to produce penicillin sufficiently pure and in sufficient quantity to use on human beings. This was ultimately achieved by a team of Oxford scientists headed by Dr. Howard Florey and Dr Ernst Chain. It was the Second World War which led to the mass production of penicillin as the world’s best antibiotic, and 646 billion units of the drug were produced in the War years to save countless numbers of lives. The American Army took 2.3 million dozes of penicillin with them for the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944.

Fleming did not take out a patent on his wonder drug, and he gained no royalties for it, but the world was not slow to shower him with honours, honorary degrees, statues and public acclaim throughout the 1940s. He was knighted in 1944, won the Nobel Prize for Science in 1945 and insisted that this award should be shared with Florey and Chain, and he became the first Freeman of the Burgh of Darvel in 1946, an award of which he was very proud. From then on Sir Alexander became a world ambassador for his profession, meeting top politicians, presidents, kings in all major countries, but he still kept contact with Darvel as he had bought his old schoolhouse as a holiday home to escape the paparazzi, and he visited it fairly frequently.

Eventually the strain of his public life caught up with him and on 11th March 1955 Sir Alexander died of a heart attack. His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral under a flagstone with the letters “A.F.” on it. Sir Alexander Fleming is not just a local hero but an international hero. It is calculated that his wonder drug has saved in excess of 200,000,000 lives worldwide. Most of us have been given penicillin in some shape or form during our lives, life expectancy has increased dramatically due to the discovery of penicillin, and the world at large has much to be thankful for in the life and work of this modest genius who was a Darvel man.

Footnote:- Plans have been drawn up to improve the memorial statue to Sir Alexander in Hastings Square, and further information and photographs of Fleming can be viewed in Darvel Heritage Museum in Darvel Town Hall , ENTRY FREE!