Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) Darvel-born physician and microbiologist, known for discovering penicillin.

Alexander Fleming, physician and microbiologist, is best known for discovering the antibiotic substance benzylpenicillin (penicillin) in 1928 for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1945 “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effects in various infectious diseases.”  

Alexander Fleming was born at Lochfield Farm, near Darvel, on 6th August 1881, to Hugh Fleming, a farmer, and his wife Grace Morton. Fleming attended Darvel School and Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London when he was 13 to live with his brother, where he attended the Royal Polytechnic Institution. He worked in a shipping office for four years when, at aged 20, his brother who was a physician, encouraged him to study medicine. In 1903 Alexander enrolled at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School where he qualified in 1906 with a MBBS degree ( Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery). He began working as a researcher at St Mary’s and then became a lecturer.  

Fleming was a member of the Territorial Army, serving as a private in the London Scottish Regiment from 1900 until 1914. During World War One, he was a captain in the Army Medical Corps and afterwards returned to St. Mary’s.  

He married Sarah McElroy in 1915 and they had a son, Robert, in 1924, who became a general medical practitioner.  

Early in his career, in 1928, Fleming was interested in the bacterial action of the blood and in antiseptics. Whilst he was investigating a bacteria that caused boils, Fleming inadvertently left a petri dish with bacteria cultures standing on his workbench. He noticed that a mould fungus had begun to grow and that the bacteria’s growth had been impeded. He concluded that the mould contained a substance that was effective against bacteria. Fleming named this substance penicillin and it became the basis for medication to treat bacterial infections. However, Fleming himself did not realise the importance of his discovery as he focused instead on penicillin’s use as a topical antiseptic for wounds. It was his fellow prize winners who demonstrated its use as an agent to fight bacterial diseases.  

His invention has probably saved more lives than any other medicine. He was knighted for his scientific achievements in 1944 and won the Nobel prize in 1945 along with two colleagues.  

Sarah died in 1949, and in 1953 Sir Alexander married Dr Amalia Coutsouris Voureka, a Greek colleague.  

Sir Alexander Fleming died in London on 11th March 1955, aged 73. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1999 he was listed in the Times Magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Britons and in 2009 was voted third greatest Scot in a poll conducted by Scottish Television, behind Robert Burns and William Wallace. 

Further Reading

Alexander Fleming at

Sir Alexander Fleming at