Weird But True
First the e-mail circulating:
"Burge, Rob (R.D.)" <email@example.com> Sent: Friday, June 16, 2000 11:49 AM
His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved. "I want to repay you," said the nobleman. "You saved my son's life." No, I can't accept payment for what I did," the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer' own son came to the door of the family hovel. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied proudly. "I'll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow to a man you can be proud of." And that he did. In time, Farmer Fleming's son graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.
Years afterward, the nobleman's son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin.
The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.
And now the truth:
Q. Did Sir Alexander Fleming save Churchill's life?
A. The Churchill-Fleming Non-Connection: The story that Sir Alexander Fleming or his father (the renditions vary) saved Churchill's life has been roaring around the Internet lately. We must have had fifty emails about it. Charming as it is, it is certainly fiction. The story apparently originated in Worship Programs for Juniors, by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakbery, published ca. 1950 by an American religious house, in a chapter entitled "The Power of Kindness."
According to Bays/Oakbery, Churchill is saved from drowning in a Scottish lake by a farm boy named Alex. A few years later Churchill telephones Alex to say that his parents, in gratitude, will sponsor Alex's otherwise unaffordable medical school education. Alex graduates with honours and in 1928 discovers that certain bacteria cannot grow in certain vegetable molds. In 1943 when Churchill becomes ill in the Near East, Alex's invention, penicillin, is flown out to effect his cure. Thus once again Alexander Fleming saves the life of Winston Churchill.
Dr. John Mather writes: "A fundamental problem with the story is that Churchill was treated for this very serious strain of pneumonia not with penicillin but with 'M&B,' a short name for sulfadiazine produced by May and Baker Pharmaceuticals. Since he was so ill, it was probably a bacterial rather than a viral infection as the M&B was successful.
"Kay Halle, in her charming book Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World 1966) comments (p. 196) that Churchill 'delighted in referring to his doctors, Lord Moran and Dr. Bedford, as M&B.' Then, when Churchill found that the most agreeable way of taking the drug was with whisky or brandy, he commented to his nurse: 'Dear nurse, pray remember that man cannot live by M and B alone.' But there is no evidence in the record that he received penicillin for any of his wartime pneumonia. He did have infections in later life, and I suspect he was given penicillin or some other antibiotic that would have by then become available, such as ampicillin. Also, Churchill did consult with Sir Alexander Fleming on 27 June 1946 about a staphylococcal infection which had apparently resisted penicillin. See Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Muffin 1966), p. 335."
Official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert adds that the ages of Churchill and Fleming (or Fleming's father) do not support the various accounts circulated; Alexander Fleming was seven years younger than Churchill. If he was plowing a field at say age 13, Churchill would have been 20. There is no record of Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland at that or any other age; or of Lord Randolph paying for Alexander Fleming's education. Sir Martin also notes that Lord Moran's diaries, while mentioning "M&B," say nothing about penicillin, or the need to fly it out to Churchill in the Near East.
Alexander Fleming was born in a remote, rural part of Scotland. The seventh of eight siblings and half-siblings, his family worked an 800-acre farm a mile from the nearest house. The Fleming children spent much of their of time ranging through the streams, valleys, and moors of the countryside. "We unconsciously learned a great deal from nature," said Fleming.
When their father died, Fleming's eldest brother inherited the running of the farm. Another brother Tom had studied medicine and was opening a practice in London. Soon, four Fleming brothers and a sister were living together in London. Alec, as he was called, had moved to London when he was about 14, and went to the Polytechnic School in Regent Street. Tom encouraged him to enter business. After completing school he was employed by a shipping firm, though he didn't much like it. In 1900, when the Boer War broke out between the United Kingdom and its colonies in southern Africa, Alec and two brothers joined a Scottish regiment. This turned out to be as much a sporting club as anything; they honed their shooting, swimming, and even water polo skills, but never went to the Transvaal. Soon after this, the Flemings' uncle died and left them each 250 pounds. Tom's medical practice was now thriving and he encouraged Alec to put his legacy toward the study of medicine.
Copyright ©, 1999-2000Mike Boyle