Penicillin Man

Author: Ros Clow
Date published: 22/01/2014
© FNRC

Penicillin Man

Through the website we were asked whether we could locate the grave of Albert Alexander. The enquirer already had a photo but was hoping to come and visit the grave. Luckily this grave was easily found as it is on the right-hand side of the curved path between the gate and the Chapel – about nine graves along from Mrs King’s grave outside the Chapel. Intrigued I asked why he was interested in Mr Alexander.

In December 1940 Constable Alexander, a Newbury man but living in Oxford, was scratched on his mouth by a rose thorn. Infection set in and by January 1941 Albert was hospitalised in the Radcliffe Infirmary. His face became so matted with weeping red abscesses that one of his eyes had to be removed. The infection had spread to his lungs. He had no hope at all.

Meanwhile Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, Oxford scientists, had been developing supplies of penicillin mould and had experimented successfully on mice. They were now ready to try this new wonder drug out on a human being. They had no idea whether it would kill or cure. With the help of a young doctor, Charles Fletcher, Albert Alexander became the first patient to be treated with penicillin. Within 24 hours his condition was greatly improved, his temperature was normal and his appetite had returned. However, at this point the penicillin supply ran out. For several days the team recycled Albert Alexander’s urine to recover as much penicillin as possible but to no avail; after a week they ran out of the drug, despite the recycling, and Alexander died on 14th March. And he is buried in Newtown Road Cemetery!

Dr Tim Walter who advises us on medical matters remembers hearing the urine recycling story in medical school but of course had no idea Alexander was buried at the end of the road. The next patient treated recovered completely and as we know penicillin went on to be the magic bullet which saved thousands of lives since 1941. Albert Alexander did not die in vain.

UPDATE

Since the original biography was written we have had contact with Albert's daughter and grand-daughter who live in the USA and we now know know what really happened.

This is a transcription from the National Association of Retired Police Officers (NARPO) newsletter of Spring 2004 and has been confirmed to us as accurate by the family.
Police Constable 231 Albert Alexander was a member of the Berkshire Constabulary. He was born in the parish of Woodley in February 1897 and joined the Force in July 1921.
At the outbreak of the war he was stationed at Wootton and was a member of the Force’s Mutual Aid Team and was on standby duty to go anywhere in the Country.

At about 7 pm on 23 November 1940 men from the County were required to assist the Southampton police. Thirty men were mustered, one of whom was Constable Alexander. They reported to the Civic centre in Southampton. Upon their arrival there were sporadic raids, but the following week was comparatively quiet. Their time was spent on patrol and surveillance of damaged buildings.
At approximately 5:50 pm on 30 November a surprise attack came. A police station took a direct hit killing a sergeant and injuring two constables, one of whom was Constable Alexander. After treatment he was transferred to Abingdon Cottage Hospital where he developed blood poisoning. He was moved to the Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford for treatment. It was agreed that he would be injected with the drug penicillin. His condition improved as a result of the drug, but after 5 days the supply ran out and a month later he died. The problem of manufacture was taken up by the Americans.
The method they used to grow the cultures was in hundreds of BEDPANS.

So what about the rose thorn story? We do not know how or where this rumour started; neither does his family. We can only assume it was a bit of misinformation created by someone at the time to divert attention away from his death being a wartime casualty in a dangerous arena outside his normal working beat.

Sources:Various

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