On March 11th 1955 Sir Alexander Fleming died.
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, whose use has saved untold millions of lives. Less well-known is that before making this world-changing discovery, he had already made significant contributions to medical science.
In 1914 World War 1 broke out and Fleming, aged 33, joined the army, becoming a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, working in field hospitals in France.
There, in a series of brilliant experiments, he established that antiseptic agents used to treat wounds and prevent infection were actually killing more soldiers than the infections were!
The antiseptics, such as carbolic acid, boric acid and hydrogen peroxide, were failing to kill bacteria deep in wounds; worse, they were in fact lowering the soldier’s natural resistance to infection because they were killing white blood cells.
Fleming demonstrated that antiseptic agents were only useful in treating superficial wounds, but were harmful when applied to deep wounds.
Almroth Wright, Flemings mentor, believed that a saline solution – salt water – should be used to clean deep wounds, because this did not interfere with the body’s own defenses and in fact attracted white cells. Fleming proved this result in the field. They published their results, but most army doctors refused to change their ways, resulting in many preventable deaths.
Today Penicillin is not as robust at fighting antibodies as it once was, Fleming warned of this in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1945 when he said ““It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”
Alexander Fleming died aged 73 of a heart attack in London on March 11, 1955. His ashes were placed in St Paul’s Cathedral.