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90 years since Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin discovery changed antibiotic treatment

90 years since Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin discovery changed antibiotic treatment

“My name is Sarah Whitlow and my paternal grandfather was Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. I have worked as a practice nurse at the Swan Surgery in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, since 1990, training as a staff nurse at the West Suffolk Hospital before that. I am proud to say I was born a Fleming!”

When did you first become aware of your grandfather’s work?

“My grandfather died before I was born but through our family memories, we have always remained amazingly proud of him. The first time I really twigged who grandfather was, was when I was about ten-years-old and there was a programme on the television about him. The actor Bill Owen was playing my grandfather, and we were invited up to the television studios at Wood Lane in London. My father was there as an advisor and that was the first time it really hit home. It was then that I really learned the importance of who he was and what he had done.”

Did you realise how significant his discovery of penicillin was?

“When I started to look into nursing as a career, I saw the big picture. A lot of what we talked about at home was just family stories, when we went to visit my grandfather’s birthplace, when we were on holiday. I was really awestruck when I went to St Paul’s Cathedral and went down to the crypt where his ashes are interred and I looked at all the names of all the famous people around, such as Wellington and Nelson.

Attending the opening of the Sir Alexander Fleming building at Imperial College London, and meeting Her Majesty The Queen also gave me a huge sense of pride.”

Do you know what motivated the discovery of penicillin?

“Inoculations were where his work was mainly focused initially, but during the First World War he became an acknowledged expert in the bacteriology of wound infection through the terrible wounds that he saw. He discovered Lysozyme, the body’s natural antiseptic, this he considered his best work as a scientist. Before he died he was looking into vaccinations into polio and other diseases. He was always reading and had such an inquisitive mind, always questioning, and instead of finding a bit of mould and throwing it away he said: “ah, that’s interesting!” I have been reading a lot about him and it’s scary because I find myself saying: “I do that!””

Can you offer us any other insights into Fleming the man?

“When people say “Who would you have as an ideal guest at an imaginary dinner party?” it would be him. I would’ve loved to have met him.

I re-read a few of his letters recently. He was very much a family man and his nieces and nephews thought he was great fun. My grandmother would throw him and my father out of the house on a Sunday and they would do a few things in the lab and then go off together to get lunch, or go to Regent’s Park, go on the river.

When the accolades started coming in, my grandfather was a bit overwhelmed, but in the end he started to quite 

enjoy it! People would invite him to events all over the world and he met the famous people of the time. Though he remained quite a private man.”

Has being Fleming’s granddaughter always been a positive thing?

“At school, it was always “you should be able to do that” because of who my grandfather was. They would say “You are from an intelligent family” and I knew I had a lot to live up to, here.

I went into nursing because I liked biology and was inquisitive as to how the body works. Our family has always believed in service too.

It is quite amazing when you think of what a change his discovery made to the lives of people. It was such a positive contribution and because of it, so many other things have been learned but also new treatments and operations have become possible.”

As a nurse you must have seen his discovery in action

“I see patients all the time who benefit from antibiotics – and sometimes I let them know who my grandfather was! Health would’ve been a disaster without his discovery. I told one of my granddaughter’s (aged 6) recently that he was a very important man and that when she had tonsillitis she had medicine discovered by my gramps. If that had been one hundred years ago, she would have been a very, very sick little girl.”

Fleming famously predicted the rise of antibiotic resistant infections

“We’re human beings and say to ourselves “we will worry about that tomorrow and anyway, antibiotics are so available”. The problem is in other parts of the world you can buy them over the counter, people don’t complete the courses prescribed to them and they are misused in farming. My grandfather suspected that was going to happen and that was a risk.

Since my grandfather’s day people have become more frightened of illness. They won’t sit and wait to get better, they feel they must get rid of it. People say “I can’t be ill” and yet it is a normal fact of life.

I think now is the time to find new treatments to replace our current antibiotics and that is why I am supporting Antibiotic Research UK (ANTRUK).

My grandfather was always optimistic and would have been similarly so about finding a solution to antibiotic resistant infections. As he said in his lifetime: “There’s never been a better time for humanity, despite the hydrogen bomb.”

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