Is it true that Lord Randolph Churchill educated 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 that Fleming’s 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.
I receive this question regularly, but the story is untrue. Neither 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.
I have cited later references in the past, but in 2009 Ken Hirsch used Google Book Search to track what is likely the first appearance of this myth: the December 1944 issue of Coronet magazine, pages 17-18, in the story, “Dr. Lifesaver,” by Arthur Gladstone Keeney.
Mr. Hirsch also tracked Arthur Keeney (1893-1955), a Florida and Washington D.C. newsman who served during World War II in the Office of War Information. “Since Keeney’s story was published only a year after Churchill was stricken (prominently) with pneumonia,” Mr. Hirsch writes, “I think it may be the first appearance of the myth.”