Sermon preached at Evensong on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (14 October 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor
In the second sermon of our October preaching series 'For Whom the Bells Toll' Canon Tricia Hillas reflects on the life of Sir Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered penicillin.
This series remembers the great and the good in the Crypt of St Paul’s in a series of addresses on the lives and achievements of men and women whose memorials are found there.
The rock band U2 sang ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.
Sir Alexander Fleming, research scientist, discoverer of penicillin and Nobel Prize recipient said: ‘One sometimes finds what one is not looking for’.
This month we are honing in on some of the men and women whose memorials are found here at St Paul’s; the musicians, artists, politicians, campaigners, missionaries, architects, faith leaders, and physicians and scientists – one of whom is Sir Alexander Fleming, whose ashes rest here.
You might be surprised that great scientists are associated with places of faith.
But there are many whose Christian faith and scientific endeavours have revolutionized our knowledge and our lives. Past and present these include:
Astronomer Johannes Kepler – who crafted laws of planetary motion,
Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur and their respective work on vaccines,
Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics,
Max Bon, physicist and mathematician instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics,
Georges Lemaitre, physicist and Roman Catholic priest credited with what came to be known as the "Big Bang theory" of the origin of the universe,
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the first to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head,
Monica Grady leading British space scientist, currently Professor of Planetary and Space Science at the Open University,
And J. Richard Gott: professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. When asked of his religious views in relation to his science, Gott responded:
"I’m a Presbyterian. I believe in God; I always thought that was the humble position to take. I think if you want to know how the universe started, that's a legitimate question for physics. But if you want to know why it's here, then you may have to know—to borrow Stephen Hawking's phrase—the mind of God.”
So let’s come to Alexander Fleming.
The story is medical legend: Fleming, a modest Scot, based in a laboratory in St Mary's Hospital, London, returned from holiday to find mould growing in one of his staphylococcus culture plates. It made him stop and look twice – noting that where the mould was growing the bacteria had died. The world’s first antibiotic had been discovered.
This changed forever the treatment of bacterial infections such as pneumonia, syphilis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and previously fatal wound and childbirth infections.
However, nothing happens without a context:
As early as 1920 Fleming was searching for antibacterial agents, an endeavour deeply influenced by his experiences during the First World War. He’d served at the Western Front in battlefield hospitals and a makeshift lab as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Studying wound infections he discovered that commonly used antiseptics were not having sufficiently beneficial effects.
With the war over Fleming began work at St Mary’s Hospital. In 1921, he discovered lysozyme, an antibacterial enzyme found in tears and saliva.
Eight years later Fleming would make his most famous discovery. What was initially referred to as ‘mould juice’, had by 1929 been named ‘penicillin’. It revolutionised medical science for all subsequent generations.
But when Fleming first published his observations, they failed to gain much attention.
After some stalled attempts at mass production, Fleming turned his attentions to other areas of work.
It would be Australian pharmacologist and pathologist Howard Florey, and biochemist Ernst Chain, a Jewish refugee who fled Hitler’s Germany for Britain, who, having read Fleming’s paper, would later attract the funds and continue the research needed to start mass production.
That was just in time for the later stages of the Second World War which meant that on June 6, 1944, Allied soldiers carried penicillin with them onto the beaches at Normandy.
It’s estimated that 100,000 men, benefited from penicillin treatment in the European Theatre between D-Day and the final German surrender.100,000 who returned to hearth and home.
Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Penicillin is said to have saved the lives of at least 200 million people across the globe since then.
Giving thanks to God for this devout physician, might we might learn from him too?
- Firstly, that context matters – Fleming’s vocation arose out in the overlap between his skills and gifts and the real needs evidence in his context. Where has God placed you and how might your gifts and experience be used there?
- Secondly, Flemings recognition of the balance between individual and shared endeavour.
In his speech at the Nobel Prize Giving Banquet he said:
‘I isolated the contaminating mould. I made an antibacterial substance which I christened penicillin. I studied it as far as I could as a bacteriologist. I had a clue that here was something good but I could not know how good it was and I had not the team. It was ten years later that Florey and Chain made up a complete team at Oxford which succeeded in this and showed the marvellous chemotherapeutic properties of penicillin’.
• Secondly, from his openness to that which lies beyond.
Fleming diligently laboured in the place where his gifts met the world’s needs. Like so many of us do, Fleming did the work, put in the hours, day after day.
Not only was he there, but he was open to the glint of possibility.
He’d later say ‘if I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this – never to neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening’.
We know this is true also of the spiritual life, the sometimes hard slog of prayer, of seeking to align our character, of living the values of the kingdom…and then the glint of grace which brings us to our knees. Scripture is woven through with these sorts of epiphanies and encounters; the woman to whom Jesus came beside a well under the hot midday sun, Moses the Shepherd catching sight of a bush alight with flame but not consumed, Joshua enquiring of a stranger outside the city walls of Jericho.
Diligence, curiosity and openness, especially to things of God, mean that, as Fleming himself said ‘one sometimes finds what one is not looking for’.
Fleming concluded his Nobel Prize speech with these words:
‘Destiny may play a larger part in discovery. It was destiny which contaminated my culture plate in 1928 – it was destiny which led Chain and Florey in 1938 to investigate penicillin instead of the many other antibiotics which had then been described and it was destiny that timed their work to come to fruition in war-time when penicillin was most needed.
It may be that while we think we are masters of the situation, we are merely pawns being moved about on the board of life by some superior power.’
- Lastly and more sombrely, might we listen to Flemings warnings and act on those of his successors.
Fleming predicted how useful antibacterial drugs would be, but also warned of how dangerous the world might be without them if humankind failed to
grasp how precious a gift they were.
Today, with concerns about over-prescribing and of the extensive use of antibiotics in farming, we hear warnings of a post-antibiotic era in which infections won’t be easily treatable with the drugs we have today.
‘We did this to ourselves, we bear the responsibility’ says journalist Maryn McKenna ‘we did this by squandering antibiotics with a heedlessness that now seems shocking’.
Furthermore, last Monday saw the publication of a landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Our world’s leading climate scientists warn that we have only 12 years in which to act. 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change that would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. They say that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed by all of us and I quote:
“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community.”
Today we give thanks for the work of physicians and scientists and especially the life and legacy of Sir Alexander Fleming, yet we fail to honour him and deceive ourselves if we ignore his wisdom and that of his successors.
May God grant us wisdom and humility to listen and courage and determination to act. Amen.