Story in an Object: Penicillin

There’s an incredible non-story behind the drug Penicillin.

Sir Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin.


This story isn’t true, but its a lovely story. I first heard this story many years ago, but I don’t recall exactly where.

The story is as follows: Did you know what Fleming saved Churchill’s life twice? The story began in the December 1944 issue of Coronet magazine, pages 17-18, in the story, “Dr. Lifesaver,” by Arthur Gladstone Keeney.

The story is that; As a young man, Churchill was pulled from a lake by a farm boy named Alex, who saved his life. Several years later the Churchill family offer to sponsor Alex’s medical school education. In 1928 Alex discovered that certain bacteria cannot grow in certain vegetable molds. In 1943 Churchill became ill in the Near East, Alex’s invention, penicillin, is flown out to effect his cure. Thus once again Alexander Fleming saves the life of Winston Churchill.

There’s lovely.

Except; there are a few problems with the story:

  1. Churchill was treated for this very serious strain of pneumonia sulfadiazine, not penicillin.
  2. There is no record of Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland at that or any other age;
  3. There is no record of Lord Randolph Churchill paying for Alexander Fleming’s education.
  4. Fleming described the story as a wondrous fable.

So the story behind penicillin isn’t the story of Fleming twice saving Churchill’s life, its the story of a story. A really compelling one, but totally false. and the way the internet has allowed the story to thrive, and become true, because people have read it on the internet.

Wikipedia has a good section on this non-story here.

The rebuttal on the website can be read here.

The lesson: always do your due diligence on a story.

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