History of health, medicine and naval history
When Penicillin Man was first published, a reviewer for the Daily Mail, commented that it “exudes a quiet authority” (something that could be said of Fleming himself) and that it showed Alexander Fleming was “more than a one hit wonder”. Yet, he is only remembered for the discovery of penicillin. Take that away and what would we be left with?
Well, as a loyal disciple of Sir Almroth Wright, the godfather of British microbiology, he certainly would have merited mention in the history of bacteriology, but he undoubtedly did enough before the discovery of penicillin to give him a place that was more than just a footnote in history.
As a result of his researches into the bacteriology of wound infection during the First World War, Fleming gained a reputation as an expert on wound infections. Using his ingenuity to construct an artificial glass wound from a test tube, he showed that the antiseptics liberally poured on to battlefield wounds were doing far more harm than good. The leucocytes, the body’s own defences, were being killed off much more quickly than the invading bacteria and that the antiseptics could not penetrate the jagged crevices in the wounds produced by contemporary ballistics. His answer of keeping the wound clean and washing it with a mild saline solution was sensible advice, though not generally adopted until the Second World War.
His discovery of lysozyme, an enzyme with a mild antiseptic effect present in such body fluids as saliva and tears, in November 1921 was also of some significance. He himself always said that it was his best work as a scientist, an honest statement as he took his researches further with lysozyme than he did with penicillin. In many ways too, lysozyme could be considered the essential precursor to penicillin, as it was the similarities between the action of the two substances ina petri dish which attracted Fleming’s attention to penicillin.
Yet, it was his discovery of penicillin which brought him fame. It was penicillin people wanted to know about and honour him for. His other work inevitably got forgotten, undeservedly. Penicillin may have had the biggest impact but Fleming was not a one hit wonder. There was so much more to the man and scientist as I found out when researching and writing Penicillin Man, now reissued and updated.