Urban Myths: “Alexander Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

Urban Myths: “Alexander Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

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.”

Alistair Cooke…

…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.”

2 thoughts on “Urban Myths: “Alexander Fleming Twice Saved Churchill’s Life”

  1. Thank you for debunk­ing this per­sis­tent myth. Well-mean­ing friends who know I admire Churchill have sent this sto­ry to me. I always won­dered if it falls into the Urban Leg­end cat­e­go­ry but nev­er did any dig­ging into its authen­tic­i­ty. That said, I ques­tioned it enough that I nev­er for­ward­ed it to any­one else.

    I see you’ve pub­lished a book about Tri­umph cars.
    I once trad­ed a trom­bone for a bat­tered ’55 TR-2:

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