Did Fleming Rescue Churchill?

A Research Puzzle

James Cross Giblin; illustrations by Erik Brooks

Henry Holt and Co.

Did Fleming Rescue Churchill?
A Terrific Story
On Tuesday, I woke up with a bad toothache, and that's how I got stuck with Sir Alexander Fleming. It happened this way. Mom made an emergency appointment with the dentist for that afternoon, which meant I had to miss Social Studies. And during Social Studies, Ms. O'Mara assigned the subjects for the three-pagebiographies of famous scientists that we have to write by next Monday.
The really interesting scientists got taken right away-people like the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison and that German guy, Wernher von Braun, who designed rockets for the Nazis and then for the United States. By the time I went back to school on Wednesday, the only scientist left on Ms. O'Mara's list was someone I'd never heard of: Sir Alexander Fleming.
I went up to the teacher's desk after class. "Isn't there anybody else I can write about?" I asked.
But Ms. O'Mara wouldn't budge. "Jason," she said, "Alexander Fleming made a great contribution to humanity. He discovered penicillin, the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives. I'm sure you can find lots of fascinating things to write about him."
"Okay," I said grudgingly. "I'll look him up on the Internet when I get home."
"I wouldn't start with the Internet," Ms. O'Mara said.
"Why not?"
"Because a lot of stuff on it isn't accurate, Jason, and it's hard to tell what is and what isn't. I'd begin instead by reading a book or an encyclopedia article to get the basic facts about Fleming. Then you can go on the Internet for more information."
"Okay," I said, but I wasn't happy. First I get an assignment to write about this Fleming guy, and then I had to start by reading some boring book or article. At least my tooth didn't hurt anymore. Whatever Dr. Di Prima had done had solved that problem.
At dinner, I told Dad and Mom about my assignment, but they weren't much help. "Who was Alexander Fleming?" Dad asked absentmindedly,and Mom said, "Wasn't he the man who discovered the vaccine for polio?"
"No, Mom. He discovered penicillin," I said. "But that's all I know about him."
Grandma--Mom's mom--had come over for dinner that evening. She wasn't helpful either. In fact, she made me feel worse when she said, "I'm surprised you have to write reports, with source notes and everything, when you're in fifth grade. We didn't have to do anything like that until we were in high school."
The next day, Thursday, I got excused from study hall to go to the library. I found two biographies of Fleming, but they were both long and had almost no pictures. And when I read the first couple of pages, they both sounded dull.
Maybe I'd have better luck with the encyclopedias. There was a short article about Fleming in the first one. It said that he was born in 1881 and died in 1955, and a little bit about how he discovered penicillin. But there was no way I could stretch out the information to fill three pages.
The next encyclopedia looked more promising. It was all about science and scientists, and had a much longer article about Fleming. I decided I'd better read the whole article and make notes, but I felt discouraged when I finished. Fleming's big discovery came about by accident, the article said. And he didn't really follow through on it. Two other scientists picked up where Fleming left off, tested penicillin, and proved that it worked. How could I make an interesting biography out of that?
On Friday, I began to get really worried. The report was due on Monday, and I still didn't know much of anything about Alexander Fleming. After Social Studies class, I went up to Ms. O'Mara's desk again. I thought I heard her sigh when she saw me coming.
"Yes, Jason, what is it?" she asked as she put some papers in her briefcase.
"I went to the library like you said, and read a couple of encyclopedia articles about Alexander Fleming, but they didn't tell me a whole lot. He discovered penicillin, but then he sort of stopped. Two other guys took it from there." I raised my voice a little to get her attention. "I don't know where to go next, Ms. O'Mara, and Monday is just a couple of days away. Do you have any suggestions?"
The louder voice seemed to work. Ms. O'Mara turned to me and focused on my problem. "Maybe it's time for you to go on the Internet," she said. "You could look up the other two scientists who worked on penicillin, and see if there are some interesting facts about them. Or you could search for information about penicillin itself--how it works and why it's successful in fighting infections."
She sounded more and more enthusiastic asshe went on: "Or you could try to find some colorful anecdotes about Alexander Fleming that would help to bring him to life--"
"Excuse me, Ms. O'Mara," I interrupted. "What's an anecdote?"
"A funny or dramatic true story about something."
"How can I find one?"
"I'd start with a search for 'anecdotes about Alexander Fleming' or 'stories about Alexander Fleming' and see if that turns up anything. But, remember, they can't just be good stories. They have to be something that really happened."
She got me fired up about the idea, and I turned on my computer as soon as I got home. I went to a search engine, typed in "stories about Alexander Fleming" like Ms. O'Mara suggested, and right away a bunch of possibilities appeared on the screen. Maybe I was having some good luck for a change! I clicked on the first item on the list, and this is what came up:
His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while plowing a rocky field, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his neck in thick black mud, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming waded into the mud, reached out to the boy, and pulled him out of the bog. He saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death. The boy thanked Farmer Fleming and, after catching his breath, ran down the road toward his home. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up in front of Farmer Fleming's humble cottage. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had rescued.
"I want to repay you," the nobleman said. "You saved my son's life."
"Any caring person would have done what I did," Farmer Fleming replied. "I can't accept payment for it." At that moment, the farmer's son came to the door of the cottage.
"Is that your son?" the nobleman asked.
"Yes," the farmer replied proudly.
"I'll make you a deal," the nobleman said. "Let me provide your boy with the same level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow up to be a man we both will be proud of."
And that the boy did. Young Fleming attended the very best schools and, in time, graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. He went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
Years afterward, the same nobleman's son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life this time? Penicillin. What was the name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. And what was his son's name? Sir Winston Churchill, the prime minister who led Great Britain to victory in World War II. As someone once said, "What goes around comes around."
When I finished reading the story, I let out a yell. This was just what I needed to make Fleming's biography interesting. But then I noticed a note in smaller type at the bottom of the screen.
This is a wonderful story, isn't it? The poor Scottish farmer saving the young Winston Churchill's life; Churchill's father, in his gratitude, vowing to pay for the education of the farmer's son; and the son growing up to discover penicillin, which in turn saves the adult Winston's life. The only problem with the tale is that it probably isn't true.
Not true? Oh, no! I dig up this terrific story, but then I find out it probably isn't true. And Ms. O'Mara said that any story I include in Fleming's biography had to be true.
Wait a minute, though. Those last sentences didn't say the story definitely wasn't true, only that it probably wasn't. Eagerly, I switched back to the complete list of stories about Alexander Fleming. Maybe some of the other listings told the same story, and maybe they contained proof that it was true.
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Erik Brooks