In a London laboratory in 1928 a chance event took place that changed the course of medicine. A bacteriologist at St Mary’s Hospital in Praed Street, London had returned from a period of leave when, while talking to a colleague, he noticed something on an agar plate. There was a zone around a fungus growing on the petri dish in which the bacteria was not multiplying. The doctor, Alexander Fleming, isolated the mould and identified it as belonging to the Penicillium genus and taking an extract from the mould, he named its active agent as penicillin. Fleming realised that penicillin had an antibacterial effect on bacteria known as staphylococci as well as on other ‘gram-positive’ pathogens. Fleming’s name would be forever linked to this discovery even though it took a decade before it could be purified for its first clinical use.
This famous Briton was born in Scotland on 6 August 1881 at Lochfield farm in Ayrshire, the nearest town being Darvel. Alexander Fleming was the third of four children born to farmer Hugh Fleming (1816–1888) and Grace Stirling Morton (1848–1928), the daughter of a neighbouring farmer. We can use the Scottish census on TheGenealogist to find the young Alexander in the 1899 Loudoun Scottish census. At this time the head of the household was his mother Grace as his father had died in 1888.
Searching forward to the next census in the UK that was taken in 1901 reveals that Fleming had by that time moved down to London. He can be found recorded residing in York Street, St Marylebone, London with his elder brother Thomas and sister-in-law Grace. The Fleming siblings were in the majority in this household as apart from Thomas, whose profession was that of an ophthalmic surgeon, there were also two other brothers who were employed as opticians and living under this same roof. The fourth brother was the 19-year-old student, Alexander.
In the next census, taken in 1911, we find that he had now qualified and become a physician. The young Dr Alexander Fleming is sharing 71 Hyde Park Mansions with another medical man, Edwin Beaton, a colleague from St Mary’s Hospital, where they both worked. The 1911 census on TheGenealogist has a unique feature whereby each property record is linked to this site’s versatile Map Explorer so that a researcher can identify where an ancestor lived on contemporary as well as georeferenced modern maps. The majority of dwellings in London can be seen down to the level of properties marked on large-scale plans, while the rest of the country will identify down to homes in parishes, roads or streets.
A stroll away from the hospital lab
By using the Map Explorer we are able to see that the two physicians lived a short stroll away from the hospital on Praed Street. The Map Explorer has several records which are linked to the maps – by selecting the Lloyd George Domesday Survey as the record level then we are able to find the hospital as it was recorded and plotted in this government land tax survey from between 1910 and 1915 and then to see the surrounding streets.
St Mary’s Hospital was the subject of an article in 1895 when the Illustrated London News published photographs of the hospital and some of its wards. The article was written some eight years before Fleming entered its medical school in 1903, where he gained his first degree MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) in 1906. In 1908, he gained a BSc degree with a gold medal in bacteriology, and began teaching there when he became a lecturer until 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.
In the war Fleming, who had already served in the army reserves as a private soldier, was commissioned a lieutenant. He was promoted to the rank of captain in 1917 and served throughout the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) working in battlefield hospitals on the Western Front in France. With hostilities over in 1918 he returned to St Mary’s Hospital, to be elected Professor of Bacteriology of the University of London in 1928. Using the Military Records on TheGenealogist allows us to find a record that he was appointed on 17 October 1914 as a lieutenant in the RAMC and gazetted on the 30th, revealed by consulting a copy of the Army Lists for 1914. These records can identify officer ancestors’ regiments as well as the dates of their appointments and promotions. Alexander Fleming’s campaign medal records may also be found in the military records contained on TheGenealogist.
The war had been raging for over a year and at the end of 1915, on Christmas Eve, Fleming married an Irish nurse, Sarah Marion McElroy, in London. Their civil registration record of marriage can be found on TheGenealogist, as can her death in 1949.
In 1939 the Flemings were living in Chelsea as the Second World War broke out. By consulting the 1939 Register on TheGenealogist, where the records are linked to maps that go down to street or parish level and so providing more precise locations than some of the other websites’ mapping, we see them in Danvers Street, Chelsea.
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The Civil Birth Marriage and Death records on TheGenealogist reveals that in 1949 Sarah, Fleming’s first wife, died; in April 1953 he married for a second time. His new bride, Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas, was a Greek colleague of his from St Mary’s, though they only had two years together before Sir Alexander Fleming died in March 1955.
Fleming not only had a place in London but he also had a country retreat in East Anglia. From the 1929 edition of Kelly’s Directory of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, found with a number of other editions in TheGenealogist’s Trade, Residential & Telephone directories collection from 1922 to 1937, we can discover that his bolthole was recorded each time in Kelly’s as The Dhwon. Consulting various other records gives us an alternative spelling for Fleming’s house in Barton Mills, a parish and village in the Bury St Edmunds district of Suffolk, where it is often listed as The Dhoon.
When travelling to New York in June 1949, however, Fleming gave his address to the shipping line as The Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology, St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, Paddington, London W2. This was the unit at the hospital specialising in bacteriology and originally called simply the Inoculation Department. By 1946 Fleming had succeeded his illustrious predecessor Sir Almroth Wright as its head and the institute took on the more befitting name that combined both men’s surnames and its field of science, the study of microorganisms. Fleming had worked under Wright both at St Mary’s before the war and during his time in the army in the field hospital set up in a casino at Boulogne in the First World War.
In the 1911 census we had seen that Fleming shared his London flat with a fellow physician, named Edwin Beaton. This doctor appears in the same edition of the Royal College of Physicians List of Fellows found on TheGenealogist and is recorded as having been appointed a licentiate in 1906, the same year as his flatmate Alexander Fleming. Beaton would go on to become the bacteriologist to the Public Health Department in Cairo and sadly we can find his death recorded there at the young age of 42 by searching the Overseas Deaths on TheGenealogist. Dr Edwin Beaton is recorded in the Consular Deaths that were reported to the General Register Office in England and so appears in the indexes for these events abroad.
The records on TheGenealogist have provided us with the tools to follow this great bacteriologist from his childhood in Ayrshire, by referring to TheGenealogist’s Scottish census collection, to living in London with his brothers and then his early days at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington where he would discover penicillin.
We have been able to use military records on TheGenealogist to find him as an RAMC officer in the First World War using Army Lists and the Medals records. The Map Explorer, with its growing number of valuable record sets, was able to show us where his St Marylebone flat was located at the time of the 1911 census. Using the Lloyd George Domesday Survey records that are also on this mapping tool we have found Fleming’s place of work, St Mary’s Hospital. The modern and historical maps allowed us to see that his hospital laboratory was a short stroll away from the flat which he shared with another physician, a man whose life ended prematurely in Cairo and who features in TheGenealogists’ Overseas Consular Deaths.
The marriage records revealed Fleming’s two marriages and the 1939 Register, with its linked mapping that is more accurate than others found online, showed us that Fleming and his first wife had moved down to Chelsea at the time that Britain was entering the Second World War. The Trades, Residential and Telephone Directories have also allowed us to find Fleming’s country retreat in Barton Mills, Suffolk and the address that he supplied Cunard, at a time that he travelled to the USA and was recorded in the Passenger Lists on TheGenealogist; this pointed us towards the change for his department at the hospital to the more fittingly named Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology. When following an ancestor’s story the suite of records and resources provided by TheGenealogist can be put to good use to really flesh out a person’s family history.