Winston Churchill Fleming


Laurel King, Contributor

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winston churchill flemingIn recent years, Alexander Fleming and Winston Churchill have been linked in a few different versions of two urban myths. Evidently, these rumors came from a 1950 story called "The Power of Kindness" in one of the Worship Programs for Juniors authored by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakbery. The only problem is, the stories are pure fiction.

Sir Alexander Fleming was an accomplished Scottish scientist and medical researcher, best known for his discoveries of penicillin (1928, winning him a shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine n 1945) and an enzyme called lysozyme (in 1923). Because of his penicillin discovery, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, in 1999. Raised on a farm close to Darvel, in Ayrshire, Scotland, he was born the son of a farmer (in 1881). For years, he attended school in Scotland then went to the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. Later, he joined the London Scottish Regiment of the Volunteer Force (1900). After inheriting some money from his uncle – John Fleming – he followed in his older brother's footsteps (Tom, who was a physician), enrolling at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in Paddington, graduating with distinctions in 1906.

The first myth includes the claim that for Winston Churchill, Fleming was some sort of hero. In this myth, a very young Winston was supposedly saved from being drowned in a lake by a farm boy named Alex, while in Scotland. As the story goes, years later, an older Winston calls his heroic savior and tells him that – out of gratitude – his parents will pay his expensive medical school bills.

The biggest problem with this myth is the ages of the main participants. Because Fleming was seven years younger than Churchill, it would be impossible for a possibly 10 year old Fleming to save a 17 year old Churchill. Second, there is no record whatsoever of Churchill almost drowning in Scotland at any time throughout his life. In fact, his younger years were spent living in Ireland, and his teenaged years spent living in London.

The second myth is linked to the first myth. As the story goes, after Fleming completed his medical education (supposedly funded by Churchill's parents), he discovers penicillin in 1928. Approximately 15 years later, in 1943, Churchill becomes ill in the Near East. To cure him, Fleming's miraculous invention – penicillin – is flown to Churchill, once again resulting in Fleming saving Churchill's life.

Although there are a few true facts in it, there are problems with this myth. First, Churchill did have an illness in 1943, but it was a rather severe form of pneumonia. Second, his infection was treated with something called 'M&B' (not penicillin), a nickname for sulfadiazine which had been created by May and Baker Pharmaceuticals (hence the name). Because the infection was successfully treated with this medication, it is likely the infection was bacterial, not viral. Third, with the availability of the medications, there would have been no reason to have them 'flown out' to him. So, despite the heartwarming charm of these stories, that is all they are: stories.