Is this old dead duck still circulating?
The story is that a poor farm kid in England Scotland saves a rich kid from drowning, and the rich family offers to pay for college for the poor kid. The poor kid goes to college, and later makes a great discovery, and that discovery later saves the life of a member of the rich family, who goes on to save the world.
In various forms I’ve seen this story, that a member of the Churchill family, or Winston Churchill himself, was saved by a member of the Fleming family, or Sir Alexander Fleming himself (the discoverer of penicillin). Then, years later Churchill has a deadly infection, but his life is saved by Fleming’s discovery.
It’s a great story, actually, but it is fabrication from start to finish, laced with famous names, our natural ignorance of some parts of history, and our desire for such coincidences to be true. It’s such a great story that the wrong, hoax version still circulates even after it is so easy to learn that the story is wrong.
The Churchill Centre, in England, has a denial that should be embarrassing to Americans and Christians — they point out it was distributed in the 1950s by churches here.
The story apparently originated in Worship Programs for Juniors, by Alice A. Bays and Elizabeth Jones Oakberg, published ca. 1950 by an American religious house, in a chapter entitled “The Power of Kindness.”
Here are several ways to tell the story is false:
1. Though Churchill did suffer from a severe illness, it was treated with sulfa, not antibiotics.
Dr. John Mather writes: “A fundamental problem with the story is that 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 Pharmaceuticals. Since he was so ill, it was probably a bacterial rather than a viral infection as the M&B was successful.
“Kay Halle, in her charming book Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World 1966) comments (p. 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 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. Also, Churchill did consult with Sir Alexander 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 Muffin 1966), p. 335.”
2. Churchill and Fleming were too close in age to make the story work. Alexander Fleming was 7 years younger than Winston Churchill. If Fleming were 13 when he rescued Churchill, as most versions have it, Churchill would have been 20.
3. No records exist of Churchill nearly drowning. There is no record Churchill nearly drowned in Scotland, or anywhere else, at any time.
4. When Churchill was 20, he was close to graduating from Sandhurst, and his father was dying — with just a year to live, the elder Churchill left England, so could not have been present as the story has it. Churchill was busy figuring out his career: Infantry or Cavalry? Was there even time to get to Scotland?
5. Fleming, though the son of a farmer, attended school away from home. According to his biography at the Nobel Prize site, “He attended Louden Moor School, Darvel School, and Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London where he attended the Polytechnic.”
6. Fleming worked to earn money to go to college — he didn’t have a wealthy benefactor. Again according to the Nobel site, “He spent four years in a shipping office before entering St. Mary’s Medical School, London University.”
7. Penicillin was only beginning to be mass produced as a medicine in 1943; it is unlikely much could have been available, even for the Prime Minister. Moreover, Lord Moran, one of Churchill’s physicians, was unfamiliar with penicillin. He wouldn’t have prescribed it. The calendar just doesn’t give much room for this fable to be accurate.
It is accurate that Churchill was gravely ill in Tunisia in 1943, and there are indications that the fable got its start from news reports of his illness. At least two newspapers reported in December 1943 that Churchill’s life had been saved by penicillin — sulphanomide being a German invention, it is probable that some sort of patriotism played a role in this erroneous report. Biographers note a story that Churchill found the sulphanomide to be bitter, and preferred to take it with brandy or whisky. This probably would have been kept from the press at the time. From these erroneous reports, however well-intentioned they may have been, it’s easy to see how the fable arose.
The story that Alexander Fleming or someone in his family saved the life of a young Winston Churchill, whose family then paid for Fleming’s medical education, and then Fleming’s discovery of penicillin again saved Churchill’s life, is fabrication from start to finish.
Tip of the old scrub brush to Eclectica.
- Photo 1: Churchill visiting New Zealand Division in Tunisia in 1943; with “Tiny,” Bernard Freyberg, commander of New Zealand’s 2nd Division.
- Photo 2: Sir Alexander Fleming in his laboratory, 1952; Associated Press photo. (Photo changed to earlier photo in 2019).