“Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

“Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

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.”

3 thoughts on ““Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

  1. I know sev­er­al sto­ries such as this one, so charm­ing that it breaks your heart to dis­cov­er that they are apoc­ryphal. In this one, a young Win­ston Churchill is saved from drown­ing by the son of a near­by farmer, Mr. Flem­ing. Winston’s Father, Ran­dolph, in grat­i­tude to the Flem­ing fam­i­ly, and after Mr. Flem­ing refus­es Mr. Churchill’s offer of a cash reward, insists that he will pay for the edu­ca­tion of farmer Fleming’s son, Alexan­der, who will use Ran­dolph Churchill’s gift to grow up to be a Biol­o­gist and invent the first antibi­ot­ic, Peni­cillin, which will save Win­ston Churchill’s life a sec­ond time, after he is strick­en with Bac­te­r­i­al Pneu­mo­nia. And this is not to count the mil­lions of oth­er lives that will be saved sub­se­quent­ly, not only by Alexan­der Fleming’s inven­tion, Peni­cillin but by all the oth­er antibi­otics that fol­lowed Peni­cillin.

    Anoth­er such sto­ry is that of Gor­don Light­foot and his band, on their way to Detroit’s Cobo Are­na, where they are to play a con­cert, that evening. Enroute, they encounter a crowd of mourn­ers out­side of Detroit’s Mariner’s Church. They ask the peo­ple why they are mourn­ing; the band is told that the ore car­ri­er, SS Edmund Fitzger­ald has sunk with all 29 crew aboard. The band con­tin­ues on to Cobo Are­na, arrives very late and begins to play, but they are upset, dis­tract­ed and their per­for­mance is unin­spired. Gor­don Light­foot stops the con­cert and address­es the audi­ence. He explains how the band stopped and talked to the peo­ple out­side the Mariner’s Church, tells them of the sink­ing of the SS Edmund Fitzger­ald, and asks their indul­gence for the band to go back­stage to get their heads togeth­er; and promis­es to fin­ish the con­cert. When they return over an hour lat­er, they per­form the song, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzger­ald’, that they just wrote, while they were back­stage. They wrote the song exact­ly as the crowd relat­ed the events to them, except that they called the Mariner’s Church the ‘Mar­itime Sailors Cathe­dral’.

    These two sto­ries and many more that I know belong to a class of sto­ry about which I say: ‘If this isn’t true, it ought to be’.

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