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Alexander Fleming

Scotland has produced many remarkable and noted men and women and Nobel Prize winner Sir Alexander Fleming rates highly among those who have made a major contribution to the world of medicine with his discovery of penicillin.

Fleming was born at Lochfield in Ayrshire, Scotland on 6 August 1881, the son of a farmer. He attended two local schools and Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London, where he spent four years in a shipping office before attending St Mary’s Hospital Medical School.

He trained as a doctor and qualified with distinction in 1906 and began research at St Mary’s Hospital Medical school and at the University of London. One of his teachers was Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy.

In World War I he served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was mentioned in dispatches and in 1918 he returned to St Mary’s.

Early in his medical career, Fleming became interested in the natural bacterial action of the blood and in antiseptics. He continued his studies during his military career and back in civilian life, he worked on antibacterial substances which would not be toxic to animal tissues.

In 1921, he discovered an important bacteriolytic substance in tissues and secretions which he called Lysozyme. He also devised sensitivity titration methods and assays in human blood and other body fluids. Continuing his research and study of influenza, in 1928 Fleming noticed that a mould had developed accidentally on a set of culture dishes being used to grow the staphylococci germ.

Penicillin cures GonorrheaThis mould had created a bacteria-free circle around itself and further experiments led him to name the active substance penicillin. However, scientists Howard Florey (Australia) and Ernst Chan (a refugee from Nazi Germany) developed penicillin further so that it could be produced as a drug. Initial supplies were limited but by the 1940s it was being mass-produced in America.

Fleming continued his research and wrote numerous papers on bacteriology, immunology and chemotherapy, including original descriptions of lysozyme and penicillin which were published in medical and scientific journals.

Awards flowed to Fleming as he continued his work. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in England in 1909, elected Professor of the medical school at St Mary’s in 1928, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943 and the College of Physicians (London) in 1944. He was also made emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of London in 1948 and knighted in 1944 and was honoured for his work in other countries apart from England. He was given doctorates and degrees from almost 30 European and American universities.

Fleming, Florey and Chan shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine. Fleming died on 11 March 1955 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

In his younger days he was a keen member of the Territorial Army and served from 1900 to 1914 as a private in the London Scottish Regiment. He married Sarah McElroy of Ireland who died in 1949 and their son is a general medical practitioner. He married again in 1953 to Dr Amalia KoutsouriVoureka, a Greek colleague at St Mary’s.

Sir Alexander Fleming was initiated into Sancta Maria Lodge No 2682, London in 1909 and was a Past Junior Grand Warden of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1942.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2019, page 8.

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