Alexander Fleming: The Man and the Myth
by Gwyn Macfarlane
Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Few people know that in parallel with the race to produce a bomb that would kill people by the hundred thousand, scientists in England ran another race, a race to produce a drug that was to save the lives of millions. The book under review is the story of Alexander Fleming, the laconic Scotsman whose chance discovery set the race in motion. While working as a bacteriologist at a London hospital in 1928, Fleming found that a culture plate seeded with staphylococci had become contaminated with a mold. Instead of discarding it, as others might have done, he noticed something unusual: colonies of these bacteria had grown everywhere except near the mold, where he saw a clear patch. He now cultured the mold and discovered that the broth filtered from it stopped the growth of several kinds of deadly bacteria. Publication of his discovery in a scientific journal stirred up hardly a ripple, and he did little more about it.
Nine years later Ernst Chain, a young German biochemist at Oxford, came across Fleming’s paper and decided together with his professor, the Australian pathologist Howard Florey, to find out the nature of the active substance in Fleming’s broth and the way it stops the growth of bacteria. With herculean labor, Chain and several of his colleagues extracted a minute quantity of what they believed to be the pure substance from gallons of broth and gave it to Florey to test.
In May 1940, while the defeated British Army was being evacuated from France, Howard Florey and his team achieved a brilliant victory. Florey had injected lethal numbers of streptococci, the kind of bacteria that causes blood poisoning, meningitis, and puerperal fever, into eight mice. He then injected the mold extract into four of them and left the other four untreated; the treated mice remained healthy and the untreated ones were dead the next day. These were the first steps in the purification of penicillin and the realization of its unparalleled therapeutic powers. As a result Fleming became a world hero, while Florey, Chain, and their colleagues’ names have remained unknown outside the world of science.
Macfarlane has written a scientific thriller tracing the almost unbelievable combination of events that guided Fleming to his discovery. He then shows why no one, not even Fleming himself, recognized the importance of his discovery and why Fleming, even though he had abandoned it to others, reaped nearly all the fame. Macfarlane’s book is the companion volume to his earlier, brilliant biography of Howard Florey, and is equally enthralling.
Fleming was graduated as a physician at London University in 1906 and became junior assistant in Sir Almroth Wright’s Inoculation Department of St. Mary’s Hospital in London. His later specialization in bacteriology was brought about by World War I when Wright and his assistants were posted to a grim military hospital in Boulogne. Here Fleming found that the antiseptics like carbolic acid, then commonly used for the treatment of open …