Best Scottish Discovery – As Voted for by You!

Last week we asked our fantastic audience, or our ScotClans family if you will, a very simple question…

What do you think is the most valuable invention/discovery/creation to come from a Scot?

You all replied with some amazing answers, so first of all I would like to say thank you. ScotClans really does love having such a positive and knowledgeable fan base out there. Out of all the submissions there was a clear winner and this week we will be taking a look at what you think is the best Scottish discovery…

Alexander Fleming

Sir Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming was born in Ayrshire on 6 August 1881, on Lochfield farm near Darvel, to farmer Hugh Fleming from and his wife Grace Stirling Morton, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer.

Fleming went to Loudoun Moor School and Darvel School, and earned a two-year scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London at the age of 13, where he attended the Royal Polytechnic Institution. Whilst working in a shipping office like ha had for four years, the twenty-year-old Fleming inherited some money from an uncle, John Fleming. Tom, his elder brother, was already a physician and urged his younger sibling to follow the same career, and so in 1903, the younger Alexander enrolled at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington. He qualified with distinction in 1906 and began research at St. Mary’s under Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy. He gained M.B., B.S., (London), with Gold Medal in 1908, and became a lecturer at St. Mary’s until 1914.

During World War I Fleming served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps for the duration of the war, being mentioned in dispatches. He and many of his colleagues primarily worked in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front in France. In 1918 he returned to St Mary’s Hospital, where he was elected Professor of Bacteriology of the University of London in 1928.

Working through the war had a significant effect on Fleming, having seen many soldiers succumb not to the wounds inflicted in the conflict but the infection that set in due to the poor conditions and treatments being utilised. Antiseptics of the time killed the patients’ immunological defences more effectively than they killed the invading bacteria. Fleming devised an experiment, of which he wrote about in an article he submitted for the medical journal ,The Lancet, during World War I, in which he explained why antiseptics were killing more soldiers than infection itself during World War I. On the surface antiseptics worked as they were expected to, but deep wounds tended to shelter anaerobic bacteria from the antiseptic agent, and antiseptics seemed to remove beneficial agents produced that protected the patients in these cases at least as well as they removed bacteria, and did nothing to remove the bacteria that were out of reach. Fleming’s findings were strongly supported by Sir Almroth Wright, but even so most army physicians over the course of the war continued to use antiseptics even in cases where this worsened the condition of the patients.


Alexander Fleming

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

By 1927, Fleming had been investigating the properties of staphylococci. Already well-known from his earlier work Fleming had developed a reputation as a brilliant researcher, but also a reputation for the untidiness of his laboratory. Returning to the lab on 3 September 1928 from a holiday with his family, Fleming returned to his laboratory having spent August on holiday with his family, he made an unusual discovery. Before leaving, he had stacked all his cultures of staphylococci on a bench in a corner of his laboratory. On his return Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed, whereas other staphylococci colonies farther away were normal. He famously and casually remarked “That’s funny”. Fleming, intrigued by this odd discovery, grew the mould in a pure culture and found that it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. For months the substance had just been referred to as ‘mould juice’ by Fleming, but on 7th March 1929 he officially named the substance penicillin.

In 1929, Fleming published his discovery in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but unfortunately little attention was paid to his article. Fleming discovered that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. This meant that producing penicillin in any significant quantity was fairly difficult. Fleming also became convinced that penicillin would not last long enough in the human body to kill bacteria effectively. Many of his clinical tests were inconclusive, probably because it had been used as a surface antiseptic. In the 1930s, Fleming’s trials occasionally showed more promise,and he continued, until 1940, to try to interest a chemist skilled enough to further refine usable penicillin and not long after Fleming abandoned his work with penicillin.

Howard Florey

Howard Florey

It was two other scientists however, Australian Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who developed penicillin further so that it could be properly produced as a drug. It was Norman Heatley who made the last contribution towards the goal of mass production. He suggested transferring the active ingredient of penicillin back into water by changing its acidity. This produced enough of the drug to begin testing on animals. There were many more people involved in the Oxford team, and at one point the entire Dunn School was involved in its production.

Norman Heatley

Norman Heatley

After the team had developed a method of purifying penicillin to an effective first stable form in 1940, several clinical trials ensued, and their amazing success inspired the team to develop methods for mass production. This mass production started, with funds from the U.S. and British governments, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By D-Day in 1944, enough penicillin had been produced to treat all the wounded with the Allied forces.

Fleming was modest about his part in the development of penicillin, describing his fame as the “Fleming Myth” and he praised Florey and Chain for transforming the laboratory curiosity into a practical drug. Fleming was the first to discover the properties of the active substance, giving him the privilege of naming it: penicillin. He also kept, grew, and distributed the original mould for twelve years, and continued until 1940 to try to get help from any chemist who had enough skill to make penicillin. But Sir Henry Harris said in 1998: “Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.”

Display of Fleming's awards, including his Nobel Prize.

Display of Fleming’s awards, including his Nobel Prize.

Fleming received much recognition for the eventual drug, as did the others that worked towards the goal of a life changing substance. In 1944 Florey and Fleming were knighted. In 1945 Fleming, Florey and Chain were all awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, in acknowledgement of their work on penicillin.

Fleming became something of a celebrity, giving lectures all over the world and receiving many honours. However he always acknowledged that it was Florey and Chain who had turned penicillin into a practical drug.

We may have a Scot to thank for the initial discovery but it is important to remember it was a collaborative effort of many nationalities that went into creating the drug that changed the face of the world and has saved, and is continuing to save, countless lives, and as Fleming was always careful to say  ‘Nature makes penicillin; I just found it’.




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2 thoughts on “Best Scottish Discovery – As Voted for by You!

  1. dwight avery ash Jr.

    my mother was a Fleming of scottish ancestry and Sir Alexander is a distant relative. I am an 81 year old retired Physical Therapist and an honors grad of the U. of Florida. One grand daughter is a licensed dentist and a grandson has just graduated in pre med from the U. of wisconsin and is looking forward to Medical School. Our family is very proud of our relationship to Sir Alexander Fleming.


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