Alexander Fleming – Playing at Work and Saving Human Lives
Sir Alexander Fleming won a Nobel Prize for his work in discovering Penicillin, perhaps one of the most important discoveries in history. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1943, knighted by King George VI in 1944 and shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945. And he loved to play games!
In 1900, when the Boer War broke out between the United Kingdom and its colonies in southern Africa, Alexander and two brothers joined a Scottish regiment. This turned out to be as much a sporting club as anything—they honed their shooting, swimming, and even water polo skills. Ultimately chose to become a surgeon to follow his brother Tom. Fleming took top scores in the qualifying examinations, and had his choice of medical schools. He lived equally close to three different schools, and knowing little about them, chose St. Mary's because he had played water polo against them.
Since he had very good grades, he had the option to become a surgeon. But, as luck would have it, since he was a member of the rifle club, the captain of the club wanted to retain Fleming in the club and hence, he suggested that Fleming join the research department at St. Mary's. There he took up the job of an assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, who himself was a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology.[i]
Everyone who knew Fleming knew he loved to play[ii] – he played games of all sorts from golf to checkers to quiz games and billiards. Fleming also played at work. Sir Almorth Wright told him, “You treat research like a game. You find it all great fun”. Fleming agreed, “I play with microbes. There are, of course, many rules to this play…but when you have acquired knowledge and experience it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something nobody had thought of.”
In 1936, at the Second International Congress of Microbiology, Fleming gave 2 demonstrations. One was of Penicillium, and the second was his invention of microbe painting. You can see his work here. So we have Sir Alexander Fleming, known to all as very fond of playing, having fun, and treating work as a game – and he is also one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.
These are very different times—but we have a lot to learn from Alexander Fleming and the fun and engagement he derived from his approach to work. A recent article in the Telegraph - Think Tank: Fix the workplace, not the workers talks about the value of feedback that Millenials have learned from gaming, “Consider a typical 28 year-old. From the moment she was born, her world has been rich in feedback. When she presses a button, something happens. When she plays a videogame, she gets a score. When she sends a text message, she hears a sound that confirms it went out. She's lived her whole life on a landscape lush with feedback. Yet when steps through the office door, she finds herself in a veritable feedback desert.”
The actual games may have changed—but the lessons are still powerful. Perhaps when we ask what needs to be done to create organizations that are fit for the future– and how to take the work out of work, it's as helpful to look at the past as it is to conjure the future.
[ii] Sparks of Genius, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein