Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
The fable that Sir Alexander Fleming saved Churchill from drowning as a boy and from pneumonia many years later by his discovery of penicillin had quite a run on the Internet a year or so ago, and the question still comes up occasionally. Charming as it is, it is certainly fictitious.
The story goes at least as far back as Worship Programs for Juniors, by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakbery, published ca. 1950 by an American religious house, in a chapter entitled “The Power of Kindness.” This is an odd source for an original myth, and we suspect the tale goes back before that.
According to Bays and Oakbery, Churchill is saved from drowning in a Scottish lake by a farm boy named Alex, who grows up wanting to become a doctor. (Other versions say WSC is saved by Alex’s father.) Churchill telephones the Flemings in Scotland to say that his parents, in gratitude, will sponsor Alex’s otherwise unaffordable medical school education. Alex graduates with honours and in 1928 discovers that certain bacteria cannot grow in certain vegetable molds. In 1943, when Churchill becomes ill in the Near East, Alex’s discovery, penicillin, is flown out to effect his cure. Thus once again Alexander Fleming saves the life of Winston Churchill.
The first part of the story is clearly imaginary. Official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert notes that the ages of Churchill and Fleming (or Fleming’s father) do not support the various accounts circulated; Alexander Fleming was seven years younger than Churchill. If he was plowing a field at say age 13, Churchill would have been 20. There is no record of Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland at that or any other age, or of Lord Randolph paying for Alexander Fleming’s education. Sir Martin also notes that Lord Moran’s diaries say nothing about penicillin, or the need to fly it out to Churchill in the Near East.
Dr. John Mather, who has researched Churchill’s medical history in great detail, punctures the 1943 part of the story: “Churchill was treated for this very serious strain of pneumonia not with penicillin but with ‘M&B,’ a short name for sulfadiazine produced by May and Baker Pharmaceutical. Since he was so ill, it was probably a bacterial rather than a viral infection, and the M&B was successful.”
Kay Halle, in her famous quote book Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World 1966) comments (196) that Churchill “delighted in referring to his doctors, Lord Moran and Dr. Bedford, as ‘M&B.’ Then, when Churchill found that the most agreeable way of taking the drug was with whisky or brandy, he commented to his nurse: ‘Dear nurse, pray remember that man cannot live by M and B alone.’”
But there is no evidence, Dr. Mather continues, “in the record that he received penicillin for any of his wartime pneumonias. He did have infections in later life, and I suspect he was given penicillin or some other antibiotic that would have by then become available, such as ampicillin.
“Churchill did consult with Fleming on 27 June 1946 about a staphylococcal infection which had apparently resisted penicillin. See Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 335.”
This article first appeared in Finest Hour 102, Spring 1999.