Fleming's faith

January 3, 2003

John Waller writes that by 1930 Alexander Fleming's early optimism in the clinical potential of penicillin had gone (Letters, THES , December 20/). This is not true. Many former St Mary's medical students have publicly confirmed Fleming's faith. An entry dated December 18 1939, in Fleming's laboratory notebook in the British Library Collection, reads:

"Penicillin: production on different media - ox heart, CYG + glutathione with drawings of cultures." There are several other notes on penicillin in 1936 and one in February 1938. And other experiments with lysozyme and sulphonamides.

Waller has based his claim on Gwyn Macfarlane's 1984 biography, Alexander Fleming: The Man and The Myth , which says that "by the summer of 1929, Fleming seemed to have abandoned penicillin as a main research interest". He quotes several entries from Fleming's notebooks but not the ones I quote above.

Macfarlane signed for Fleming's notebooks on October 10 1980, yet in his book four years later there is no mention of them. Macfarlane was an Oxford man and, like Howard Florey, he disliked Fleming. A former Oxford medical student, now an eminent professor of medicine, told me that in his time in Oxford, Florey gave an annual lecture on penicillin in which he referred to Fleming as "that gardener".

Ever since 1984, numerous books and journal articles have been published criticising and denigrating Fleming. I have collected them all. It is time to stop denigrating the man who discovered lysozyme and penicillin and made many other important contributions to medical science.

Francis Diggins

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