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Churchill, Farmer Fleming, and the Invention of Penicillin


Winston Churchill as a boy
   Winston Churchill

Netlore Archive: Did the son of a Scottish farmer who allegedly saved the life of the young Winston Churchill grow up to become the inventor of penicillin, which later supposedly saved the life of the adult Winston Churchill?

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1999 (this version)
Status: False (see details below)

Email text contributed by Todd C., March 7, 1999:

What Goes Around, Comes Around

His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black mulch, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved. "I want to repay you," said the nobleman. "You saved my son's life."

"No, I can't accept payment for what I did," the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer's own son came to the door of the family hovel. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied proudly.

"I'll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow to a man you can be proud of."

And that he did. In time, Farmer Fleming's son graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Years afterward, the nobleman's son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin.

The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.

Someone once said, "What goes around, comes around."

Analysis: If you're thinking this story rings too good to be true, you are absolutely right. "Charming as it is," observes a Churchill Centre page devoted to alleged convergences between the lives of Winston Churchill and Alexander Fleming, "it is certainly fiction."

Among the reasons set forth in support of that conclusion are:

  • There is no record of Winston Churchill nearly drowning in a Scottish bog when he was young.
  • There is no record of Lord Randolph Churchill paying for Alexander Fleming's education.
  • Though it is true that Winston Churchill contracted pneumonia more than once during World War II and was treated with an antibiotic called sulfadiazine ("M&B"), he was never, according to available medical records, treated with penicillin.
That said, Sir Alexander Fleming was indeed the discoverer of penicillin, and Churchill did apparently consult with the brilliant physician and professor of medicine once in 1946 when he had a staph infection that proved resistant to the drug.

The Churchill Centre attributes the apocryphal tale, which has circulated in email form since 1999, to a 1950 book called "Worship Programs for Juniors" by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakbery.

Sources and further reading:

Churchill Myth: Sir Alexander Fleming Twice Saved Churchill's Life
Tall tale debunked by the Churchill Centre

Sir Winston Churchill Biography
The Nobel Foundation

Sir Alexander Fleming Biography
The Nobel Foundation

The History of Penicillin
About.com: Inventors

Last updated: 03/15/15

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