Penicillin Man

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

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.


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