Fleming as rescuer…
The Fleming myth is updated from an article originally published in 1998.
Is it true that Lord Randolph Churchill financed the education of Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, as a result of Fleming (or his father) rescuing Churchill from drowning in a swamp when young Winston was a youth—and a Fleming discovery, penicillin, saved Churchill’s life years later in 1943? A friend of mine has sent me this email regarding it and I wanted to verify . —L.M.
This question comes up regularly, but both parts of the story are untrue. Neither Alexander Fleming nor his father were with Churchill at the times suggested. Official biographer Martin Gilbert investigated, and found that the dates did not coincide. Nor was penicillin used to cure Churchill when he fell ill in Carthage in 1943.
“Saved from drowning”
The first part of the story often adds that in gratitude for Alex’s saving Winston’s life, Lord Randolph Chrchill paid for his eduction. It is all imaginary. Official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert notes that the ages of Churchill and Fleming (or Fleming’s father) do not support the idea. Alexander Fleming was seven years younger than Churchill. If he was plowing a field at say age 13, Churchill would have been 20. There is no record of Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland at that or any other age. Nor is there record of Lord Randolph paying for Alexander’s education.
“Saved by penicillin”
The Struggle for Survival, based on the recollections of Churchill’s doctor Lord Moran, say nothing about a need for penicillin, during Churchill’s illness in 1943. Dr. John Mather, who has researched Churchill’s medical history in detail, explains: “Churchill was treated for this very serious strain of pneumonia not with penicillin but with ‘M&B,’ a short name for sulfadiazine produced by May and Baker Pharmaceutical. Since he was so ill, it was probably a bacterial rather than a viral infection, and the M&B was successful.”
For years I thought this story originated in 1950. That was when an American religious house published Worship Programs for Juniors, by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakbery. It appeared in a chapter entitled “The Power of Kindness.”
But in 2009 a Churchillian reader, Ken Hirsch, used Google Book Search to track a much earlier appearance. This was “Dr. Lifesaver,” by Arthur Gladstone Keeney, in the December 1944 issue of Coronet, pages 17-18. Mr. Hirsch also tracked author Keeney (1893-1955). He was a Florida and Washington newsman who served during World War II in the Office of War Information. “Keeney published his story only a year after Churchill’s pneumonia,” Mr. Hirsch wrote. “So I think it may be the first appearance of the myth.”
…led with this story in his 15 August 2003 “Letter from America.” I was the Churchillian he mentions consulting, although at the time we only tracked the myth to 1949. Alas he died six months later, before we knew of the 1944 appearance. He was a lovely man, and truly irreplaceable. See “Alistair Cooke: An Introduction and an Appreciation.”