Winston Churchill, Alexander Fleming, and Penicillin

It’s a Monday Myth day! A little extra credit to give you a Buzzkill boost for the start of your week!

In the early days of email, a wonderfully-constructed tale flew around the interwebs. It was about a medical emergency, a heroic rescue, and a family’s gratitude. It attracted our attention here at the Buzzkill Institute when one of my colleagues, when I was teaching, brought it to my attention. And then, yesterday, it popped up in a Zoom meeting that I was forced to attend. Yes, a kind of motivational speaker related the story as if it was God’s honest truth. And, of course, it’s a Churchill story, so I had to tell you about it today.

As so often happens, people believed these heart-warming tales and have forwarded them around their email and Facebook circles ever since. Here is that original email:

In the late 19th century, an English noble family journeyed to Scotland for a summer vacation. The mother and father were looking forward to enjoying the beautiful Scottish countryside with their young son. But one day the son wandered off all by himself and got into trouble. As he walked through the woods, he came across an abandoned swimming hole, and as most boys his age do, he took off his clothes and jumped in!

He was totally unprepared for what happened next. Before he had time to enjoy the pool of water, he was seized by a vicious attack of cramps. He began calling for help while fighting a losing battle with the cramps to stay afloat.

Luckily, it happened that in a nearby field a farm boy was working. When he heard the frantic cries for help, he brought the English boy to safety.

The father whose son had been rescued was of course very grateful. The next day, he went to meet the youth who had saved his son’s life. As the two talked, the English nobleman asked the brave lad what he planned to do with his future.

The boy answered, “Oh I suppose I’ll be a farmer like my father.”

The grateful father said, “Is there something else you’d rather do?”

“Oh yes!” answered the Scottish lad. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. But we are poor people and could never afford to pay for my education.”

“Never mind that,” said the nobleman. “You shall have your heart’s desire and study medicine. Make your plans, and I’ll take care of the costs.”

In time, that farming lad 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. 

There is more! Some years later, in December of 1943, a prominent British politician became dangerously ill with pneumonia while in North Africa for wartime meetings with other Allied leaders. Word was sent to Sir Alexander Fleming. Flying in from England, Dr. Fleming administered his new drug to the ailing politician.

The name of that politician? Sir Winston Churchill, whose father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had paid for Fleming’s medical education all those years ago in gratitude for saving his son’s life the first time. What goes around comes around. And in 1943, Fleming saved Winston Churchill’s life all over again!

There are lots of versions of the story about young Alexander saving young Winston’s life, and then, half-a-century later, Sir Alexander saving Prime Minister Churchill’s life again. But they all have one thing in common – there’s no evidence that either of these life-saving events ever happened.

There is no reference in the extensive Churchill archives (or in the innumerable biographies of him) that he ever floundered around in a Scottish bog and had to be rescued by a local laddie. And don’t forget, Buzzkillers, Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, was a very prominent British statesman in the late 19th Century. So there’s no shortage of evidence from his life, including family holidays and what happened during them. Lord Randolph was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886. 

In addition to being in charge of the government budget, the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer is considered second in importance only to the Prime Minister in the political British system. Winston Churchill himself would later serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1926 to 1929. And we need to remind the Churchill worshippers out there that he brought in disastrous economic and financial policies that helped lead to the famous General Strike of 1926, and aided Britain’s slide into the Great Depression in 1929.

In other words, there is a ton of evidence about the Churchills, going all the way back to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough in the late 1600s. You can’t walk down a street in Britain without running into one Churchill archive or another. And these United States are full of Churchill societies and statues. 

The Churchill family itself was highly fond of writing biographies of its prominent members. Winston wrote a biography of Lord Randolph, and Winston’s son, named Randolph after his grandfather, wrote two volumes of biography about Winston Churchill. If any family story with such wonderful “what-goes-around-comes-around elements” as the “Alexander Fleming Saved Churchill’s Life” story were genuine, it would have been verified decades ago.

Not only that, the Fleming side of the story is equally fictitious. There’s no evidence that young Alexander had a life-long yearning to become a doctor. In fact, he went to business school and worked as a clerk in a shipping firm in the late 19th century. After serving in the Boer War in the opening years of the 20th century, Fleming returned to London. At the urging of his older brother, Tom, who actually was a doctor, Fleming studied medicine. And he did so with an inheritance from his uncle, not from Lord Randolph Churchill.

Furthermore, Winston Churchill’s 1943 infection in Tunisia was cured by his personal physician, Charles McMoran Wilson (1st Baron Moran), using sulpha drugs, not penicillin.

There’s another reason that Alexander Fleming couldn’t have flown out to treat Churchill in 1943. The fact is that Fleming wasn’t a practising physician. He was a research scientist, specializing in pharmacology and botany. And although he is usually credited with the discovery and development of penicillin, his contribution (although significant) was in discovering penicillin as an active substance and giving it its name in the late 1920s. He was not able to develop it into an effective antiseptic or drug. So he moved on to other scientific work. Decades later he would refer to his fame as the father of penicillin as, “The Fleming Myth.”

That’s because, from 1935 to 1940, a group of scientists at the University of Oxford, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley, took the basics of penicillin and used it to create the world’s first effective antibiotic medicines. It was seen as a wonder drug during World War II, and Fleming often referred to Florey, Chain, and Heatley as the real heroes of penicillin and antibiotics treatments. Florey, Chain, and Fleming received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.

And that brings me back to my favorite subject – me, and my highly tenuous connections to famous and impressive people from the past. Howard Florey (created Baron Florey in 1965) and Norman Heatley were both fellows of Lincoln College, in the University of Oxford when they did their crucial work in the development of penicillin. Lincoln was also my college, and I first heard their story there. And like the shameless self-promoter I am, I’ve basked in that glow for years.

Talk to you next week.

17 January 2022


Buzzkill Bookshelf

William Rosen, Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine (2017).

A sophisticated analysis of the complicated history of penicillin and antibiotics.

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