Field of Science


This is surely the best biography, out of many written, of Alexander Fleming, the scientist whose discovery of penicillin ranks among the most important in the history of medicine. The discovery and the man himself has been much debated; whether he really made the discovery, whether he was conceited and sought all the fame and honours for himself-many such allegations abound. In this book, all these have been probably put to rest. MacFarlane personally knew Fleming and he weaves an affectionate and engaging portrait of a fine man, a hard worker, and most importantly, an unassuming man who never sought fame or honours for himself. MacFarlane gives due credit to Florey and Chain, who shared the Nobel Prize with Fleming. Without their work, Penicillin may never have seen the light of day, and especially in time to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the Second World War. There had been much criticism of Fleming and he had been accused of stealing the glory from Florey and Chain. Nothing could be further from the truth. If people and the press adored Fleming, it was because of his inherent simplicity and modesty, a disarming trait which he acquired during his childhood spent in the countryside, and which endeared him to them. A man of extremely few words, he lived his life quietly and that is precisely why he fuelled the press's notion of a solitary worker striving obsessively in a lab to make great advances in science for humanity's benefit. MacFarlane dispels this assumption by the press, noting that most of his life, Fleming worked a regular but honest 9-6 day at his laboratory. He also usually refrained from interviews. However, MacFarlane also importantly dispels the idea rooted in the minds of so many; that Fleming's discovery was a 'fortunate accident'. Fleming himself has said that "Chance favours the prepared mind". The accidental introduction of the mold which kills bacteria in Fleming's petri dishes may have been fortunate, but it is a tribute to his powers of observation and meticulousness, as well as his foresight, that not only did he notice this unusual event and recorded it, but he also saw that it could be extremely important as a practical discovery. He duly published a few articles in which he tried to explain why the discovery could be medically important, but because of his reticient nature, he did not push or publicise it. When Florey and Chain were doing their path breaking research on the commercialization of Penicillin, Fleming was always generous enough to answer their questions, provide them samples, and give them due credit in public. He never claimed the penicillin story as exclusively his own. MacFarlane brings to light this remarkably modest character of the man. He describes Fleming as he was and does not try to unduly lionize him. In the end though, you cannot help but feel admiration and affection for the scientist who without a doubt began the modern age of war against microbes. MacFarlane has done a superb job of stripping away the elements of myth from Fleming's life, and showing us the man in all his greatness.

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