Over the last few days of May and the first few days of June 1948, cheers and applause could be heard in some of the city’s streets. The recognition wasn’t aimed at any footballer, artist or elite sportsperson, but rather a scientist visiting Barcelona at the invitation of Dr.Lluís de Bes, director of the Municipal Hospital for Infections. The illustrious visitor hailed in the streets was none other than the Nobel prize-winner Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
The scientist and his wife spent twelve days in Barcelona, from 26 May to 8 June 1948, now 67 years ago. They were quite surprised at the welcome people gave them. They were used to being received by authorities wherever they went but very surprised to see people take to the streets. Fleming himself explained in a speech on 5 June for the inauguration of the research department at the Municipal Hospital for Infections, nowadays the Hospital del Mar. “Of all the cities we’ve visited, what we’ve never experienced before is the spontaneous show of affection on the part of all the social classes in Barcelona”.
When people recognised Fleming in the street they clapped and treated him as a hero. The La Vanguardia newspaper from 28 May that year notes that “The Flemings also went to Les Rambles, which they walked along to constant applause from the public”. The following day the same paper reported the scientist’s visit to the British Institute stating “Upon leaving the institute, professor Fleming received homage from a crowd of Barcelona citizens who, aware of the reception going on inside the building, waited outside to show their affection and recognition, which they did via grand applause which didn’t stop until the Flemings got into the car”.
Fleming visited Barcelona at the invitation of his friend Dr. Lluís Trias de Bes to inaugurate the research department at the Municipal Hospital for Infections. Over the course of his 12 day stay in the city, the Nobel prize-winner also gave 5 conferences, 3 of which were at the hospital itself. Another was at the Royal Academy of Medicine, which named him academic of honour, and the other at the Paranimf hall at the University of Barcelona. He also went to Montserrat and Sitges, visited the Romanic museum and the Poble Espanyol. Other activities on the trip included attending a bullfight at the Monumental arena, watching a friendly football match between Spain and Ireland, and going to a concert by the Orfeó Català choir at the Palau de la Música. The press at the time paid quite some attention to the Nobel prize-winner’s stay in the city.
The discovery of penicillin was partly coincidental as a petri dish became contaminated, something which had happened on other occasions. Fleming’s merit was to look at it closer and study it. This was back in 1928, but it wasn’t until 1941 that it went through clinical testing. The Second World War and medical needs it caused meant that it was increasingly used from 1943 onwards. Two years later in 1945, Fleming received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery, along with Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain who he collaborated with in his research.
In Barcelona, there are two public places dedicated to Fleming. One is c/ Dr. Fleming, running from Av. Sarrià to the junction where Rda. General Mitre meets c/ Lázaro Cárdenas. The other is the Jardins Dr. Fleming, located on the corner of c/ Carme and c/ Floristes de la Rambla, where there is bust sculpture with a plaque stating ‘Barcelona a Sir Alexander Fleming’. The bust is provisionally obscured by builders’ huts at the public works in Pl. Gardunya. A smaller plaque to the side also carries an inscription with a tribute from municipal abattoir workers to Fleming from 1966. The bust and the plaques are on the wall of the building where the headquarters of the Royal Academy of Medicine is housed, at the old site of the Hospital Sant Pau.
Th exhibition ‘Hospital del Mar: 100 anys amb el batec de Barcelona’ (Hospital del Mar, 100 years with Barcelona beats) at the Museu d’Història de Catalunya (MHC) is on until 15 July and includes various documents related to Sir Alexander Fleming’s visit to Barcelona.