14 – Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

September 28, 1928

THERE is a fair chance you’d be dead if it wasn’t for Alexander Fleming.

Alec, as he was known, was the Ayrshire farm boy who famously, on Friday, September 28, 1928, discovered penicillin by accident. But that accident has saved millions of lives. They called it the “miracle drug”.

It is easy, in our comfortable early 21st Century, where there seems to be a drug to combat almost everything, to forget what life was like before penicillin. People died from minor wounds that became infected, pneumonia was extremely dangerous and syphilis all but incurable.

The introduction of penicillin in the years following World War Two made a huge difference.

Fleming’s story is in equal parts, genius and happy accident. However, it is strongly underpinned by what was once a truth known throughout Scotland – if you stick in at school, you’ll do well.

Fleming, before he was ever a world-renowned scientist, was the sort of industrious, clever, diligent laddie that Scottish schools used to produce as a matter of course.

Alexander Fleming saved countless millions of lives.
Alexander Fleming saved countless millions of lives


He, and thousands of others like him, built the world we know today. They invented things, they improved things and they ran the world’s great industries.

Each one had a family behind them that demanded they do well at school. Proud indeed was the mother with an academic certificate to frame for the wall.

Education was seen as a golden opportunity to be grasped with both hands. This is true in many places throughout the world, but no country’s scholars grabbed that chance as wholeheartedly as the Scots.

It is one of the less famous Scottish traits.

But forget the myth about being mean with money or the propensity to get into fights. A hard-won and excellent education along with a disciplined capacity for hard work, is a much more significant factor and has had a more far-reaching effect on why Scottish inventors, leaders and tycoons have always been present in disproportionate numbers throughout the world.

So ingrained was the desire for education that men and women would continually self-educate for the rest of their lives.

So it was with Fleming.

He was known as an untidy scientist and, in his early days, a bad communicator. Those accusations may be true. But he worked at both faults and became a vastly-respected and sought-after professor and speaker.

He forged himself and re-educated himself into what was required.

And he saved countless millions of lives.

A true Scottish hero.

Fleming (right) with Dr Robert Coghill (Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Fleming (right) with Dr Robert Coghill (Fox Photos/Getty Images)


Alexander Fleming served as a medic in World War 1 and vowed to use his skills to find a way to stop men dying of minor wounds. He saw too many deaths he felt shouldn’t have happened.

Devoting himself to this work, he had already discovered lysozyme, another anti-bacterial agent, in 1922.

In 1928, he went off on two weeks’ holiday, leaving cultures of Staphylococci in a petri dish. On his return, he noticed one culture had a fungus growing on it, and that the colonies of Staphylococci bacteria surrounding the fungus had been destroyed.

He famously remarked to the other scientists in his laboratory: “That’s funny”. That funny fungus eventually became, after further work involving several other scientists, penicillin.
The world of medicine had changed.