Finding Alexander Fleming

March 16, 2009

Alexander Fleming

Sir Alexander Fleming, the nobel-prize winning scientist who discovered the antibacterial effects of penicillin, travelled extensively during his lifetime and crossed the Atlantic several times, with the journeys logged on the Passenger Lists.

Fleming was born in East Ayrshire, Scotland in 1881. This event, along with many other Scottish records can be found on our sister-site, ScotlandsPeople.

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Fleming spent the first four years of his career working in a shipping office, but after being left an inheritance by an uncle, he decided to follow the career path of his elder brother, Tom, a physician.

He studied at St Mary’s Medical School, London University from 1901. Fleming can be found on the 1901 census, living in Marylebone, London, as a medical student (click image to enlarge):

Fleming on the 1901 census

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After qualifying with distinction in 1906, Fleming joined the research department at St Mary’s as an assistant bacteriologist.  He served throughout the First World War as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps, working in battlefield hospitals on the Western Front.

Fleming was ‘mentioned in dispatches’ (a report that was issued in the London Gazette, which recorded noteworthy actions) for his conduct in the war. Many soldiers who served or died in the First World War can be found among the findmypast.com military records.

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During the war Fleming had repeatedly witnessed the deaths of soldiers from septicaemia that resulted from infected wounds, and he became convinced that antiseptics on deep wounds served to hinder a patient’s chances of recovery. When he resumed his post at St Mary’s he resolved to find a better alternative.

In spite of Fleming’s undoubted brilliance as a researcher he was also a somewhat careless and chaotic lab technician. It was his carelessness in leaving some cultures unattended whilst on holiday in 1928 that led to the discovery of the world’s first antibiotic, and revolutionised medicine.

Fleming gave many lectures on his work overseas, and can be found aboard the Aquitania in 1939, on a trip to the USA:

Fleming aboard the Aquitania in 1939

In recognition of his contribution to medicine, Fleming was knighted in 1944. The following year, alongside fellow pioneers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the bactericidal effect of penicillin. Here is Fleming on the Passenger Lists four years later, bound for America aboard the Queen Elizabeth:

Fleming aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1949

Alexander Fleming died 53 years ago this month, on 11 March 1955, and his ashes were interred at St Paul’s Cathedral. His death is recorded in the findmypast.com death indexes.

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Here is Fleming’s final Passenger List voyage, aboard the Queen Mary, again bound for the USA, in 1950:

Fleming aboard the Queen Mary in 1950

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