Kilfian memorial to penicillin pioneers

By Terry Reilly (c)

Irish Post, England

The people of the parish of Kilfian, between Ballina and Ballycastle, turned out in strength on August Bank Holiday Monday to witness the unveiling of a memorial to the discoverer of penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming and his Kilfian-born wife, Lady Sarah (nee McElroy).

The unveiling of the monument, complete with bronze busts of the couple, was performed by their only son, Dr Robert Fleming.

Sean Gilvarry, chairman of the local committee, welcomed all the guests, and he spoke of the enormous contribution made to humankind by the couple. “Few people can say with certainty that their lives have not been affected by the discovery of penicillin,” he said.

He said Sarah McElroy was born in Kilfian on 28th May 1881, and after leaving school she and her twin sister, Elizabeth, went to Australia and trained as nurses. Sarah returned to spend some time nursing in Dublin, before moving to London, where she distinguished herself in the nursing profession and established her own Nursing Home.

“It was here that she became acquainted with the young Scottish doctor, Alexander Fleming. They were married in the Church of Saint Charles Burroneo, Ogle Street, London, on 23rd December 1915. Dr. Fleming was serving in France as a Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the time,” he added.

“Dr. Fleming had seen so much loss of limb and life, resulting from bacterial infection during the war, that he was driven by a desire to find a cure. During his many years of painstaking research, oftentimes without support from the world of science, Sarah proved to be his loyal supporter. This she proved without doubt when she made the enormous sacrifice of selling her Nursing Home to provide finance and thereby allow Alexander to pursue his findings,” said Mr Gilvarry.

Sarah predeceased her husband, passing away on 28th October 1949. She is buried in Hellingdon Cemetery, London. He died in 1955, and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Dr Robert Fleming recalled visiting Kilfian with his parents in the 1930s, and said he had a clear recollection of the farm workers ‘gaffing’ salmon in the local river. He also recalled Lacken Strand and a fishing trip on a boat out to sea with the Cosgroves in Ballina.

“I know my father was happy on these visits, as it was a similar environment to his childhood on the Scottish farm (where he was reared),” he wrote in the commemorative booklet also launched on the occasion.

Other speakers included Mr Peter Hynes of Mayo County Council, who praised the sculptors, Tim Morris and Rory Breslin, Foxford, and horticulturist Peter Gill; and Michael Ruddy who launched the commemorative booklet.

Officiating at the blessing were Fr Peter O’Brien, P.P., Kilfian, Monsignor Francis Lynn, P.P., Ardagh, Bishop Richard Henderson and Revd Ted Ardis, Church of Ireland.

Richard Bourke, grandson of the late Dr Aubrey de Vere Bourke, did one of the readings at the ceremony. Dr Bourke wrote in the booklet of probably the first use of penicillin outside a hospital environment in the West of Ireland by him in 1943.

*This article first appeared in The Western People Newspaper, Co Mayo, and in The Irish Post, London.

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