The story below has stormed around the Internet for the past several years. I received it recently, along with a warning that bad luck would ensue if I didn’t share it. These days, I can’t afford to take any chances:
“His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved.
'I want to repay you,' said the nobleman. 'You saved my son's life.'
'No, I can't accept payment for what I did,' the Scottish farmer replied waving off the offer.
At that moment, the farmer's own son came to the door of the family hovel.
'Is that your son?' the nobleman asked.
'Yes,' the farmer replied proudly.
'I'll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.'
And that he did. Farmer Fleming's son attended the very best schools and in time, graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and 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.
The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill.
His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.”
Like many similar stories which circulate on the Internet - and threaten dire consequences for those who interrupt the flow - this one is inspiring. It summons thoughts of honesty, good character and selflessness, perhaps even bringing forth a few tears. It says that life is ultimately fair and that good deeds are eventually rewarded. It is beautiful, heartwarming, and completely fictional.
The story first appeared in the December 1944 issue of Coronet magazine, in an article titled “Dr. Lifesaver” by Arthur Keeney. The tale gained some credibility from the fact that Churchill had been stricken with pneumonia in the prior year. Kay Halle’s book Irrepressible Churchill (1966) notes that Sir Winston was treated for this condition not with penicillin, but with sulfadiazine produced by May and Baker Pharmaceuticals (no connection with Fleming).
The diary of Churchill’s personal physician, Lord Moran, notes that his patient did speak with Dr. Fleming in 1946 about a penicillin-resistant staph infection. While this did not involve a life-threatening condition, it probably added fuel to the myth. There is no record of Lord Randolph funding any of Alexander Fleming’s medical education, or of Winston Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland.
What is noteworthy is not that the Fleming-Churchill story is fictional, but that in an era of web-enabled fact-checkers it continues to survive. There are plenty of true stories involving good deeds, but this one offers more. The compassion in this story propagates in unforeseen ways. A young man who probably would have ended up as a farmer instead goes on to develop a miracle drug that benefits all mankind. He directly saves a man’s life twice; that man goes on to become one of the most influential leaders in modern history. The tale perseveres because it confronts the existential question; what good will come of my kindhearted acts?
Beneath the hard outer shell of commercialism, the holiday season is a time of imagination and wonder. It is a perfect opportunity to reflect on our acts of kindness and generosity, and to imagine the impact that we will never know.
Grace and peace to all…
Prior to founding INVENTtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. While at Seagate, he was a proud member of the team that brought the world’s first notebook disk drive with perpendicular recording technology to the market.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.