Fleming, Amalia (1912–1986)

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Fleming, Amalia (1912–1986)

Greek bacteriologist and political activist who stood up against the military dictatorship that ruled Greece. Name variations: Lady Fleming. Born Amalia Koutsouris in 1912 in Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey); died in Athens, Greece, on February 26, 1986; daughter of Harikios Koutsouris (a physician); had a brother Renos; married Manoli Vourekis (an architect); married Sir Alexander Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin), in 1953 (died March 11, 1955); children: (stepson) Robert.

Became Lady Fleming when she married Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin (1953); opposed the military dictatorship that ruled Greece (1967–74); was arrested and briefly imprisoned (1971), then expelled from the country; continued her activities from exile in the United Kingdom; returned to Greece to become highly visible in that nation's newly revived democracy.

Born two years before the start of World War I in the fabled city of Constantinople, Amalia Koutsouris could reasonably look forward to a life of comfort and ease as the child of a physician in the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, she was born into the most violent century in history, into an age of world wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. By the time she reached age two, her idyllic existence had been forever crushed. In 1914, Amalia's family fled the racially intolerant Pan-Turkish state which would in due course destroy and deport its Armenian and Greek minorities. Her family lost its home and her father's laboratory was seized, material losses that would seem trifling later in Amalia's turbulent life. Growing up in Athens, Greece, she studied medicine at the University of Athens, with a specialty in bacteriology. After graduation, she accepted a position at the Athens municipal hospital, then married Manoli Vourekis, whose career path was architecture.

Normal work patterns and private life were demolished for Amalia and Manoli Vourekis in April 1941, when Greece was defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany while it assisted its hapless Fascist Italian ally. Harsh Nazi rule soon included the repression of resistance activities and the rounding up of Jews to be shipped to death camps. Like many patriotic Greeks, both Amalia and her husband joined the resistance movement. The risks of being captured were great and punishments draconian, but in the anti-Nazi underground they met remarkable women and men from various backgrounds whose only goal was to rid their nation of the hated German and Italian aggressors. Amalia hid British and Greek officers and arranged their escape routes to Egypt. She also transcribed and distributed BBC broadcasts and helped prepare false identity cards for endangered Greek Jews so that they would appear to be members of the Greek Orthodox faith. After a member of her resistance group succumbed to torture and revealed Amalia's name along with several dozen others, she was arrested by the Italians. An attempted breakout from a prison hospital by feigning appendicitis resulted in the unnecessary removal of her appendix but did not facilitate her escape. Instead, she was transferred to a jail, sentenced to death, and served six months behind bars before advancing British troops caused the Germans to flee and abandon the facility.

The end of foreign occupation brought peace neither to Amalia nor her husband nor indeed to the people of Greece. Fascist inhumanity had destroyed 14,000 villages and resulted in the death of one in ten of the Greek population. A civil war between Communist-led forces and conservative royalists, started in 1947 by the United States and backed by the British, plunged the already ravaged nation into a fratricidal struggle. Estranged from and soon to divorce her husband, Amalia had little to return to after the war. With her marriage in tatters, and her husband's prewar house, studio and laboratory completely destroyed, a discouraged Amalia hoped to start a new life elsewhere. Almost miraculously, her application for a British Council scholarship to study bacteriology at St. Mary's Hospital, London, was approved. An additional aspect of her remarkable good fortune was the fact that the director of the hospital's highly regarded Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology was none other than Nobel Prize-winner Sir Alexander Fleming, known throughout the world as the discoverer of penicillin.

Amalia was ushered into Sir Alexander Fleming's office on October 1, 1946. Because of a misunderstanding and her shaky English, Alexander did not place her on the allergy team as had been planned but informed her that she could work directly with him. Thus, she would be the first woman physician ever to work in Alexander Fleming's laboratory. Alexander and his staff were quickly impressed by her research, and before long her name appeared on several research studies published in such world-class scientific periodicals as the British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Alexander and Amalia developed an excellent professional and personal relationship over the next few years, but it did not involve romance until after the death of Alexander's first wife in 1949.

By the end of 1950, Sir Alexander had fallen in love with his much younger medical colleague, but his timidity hampered his ability to articulate a marriage proposal. When Amalia returned to Greece for the Christmas holidays, she received a job offer from an Athens hospital. Not until November 1952, when he was in Athens for a UNESCO conference, did Sir Alexander find the courage to propose to her. After their 1953 marriage in London, the Flemings resumed their joint research work at the Wright-Fleming Institute. Their union was to be happy but brief. Sir Alexander Fleming died of a heart attack in London on March 11, 1955.

Immobilized by her grief for two years, Lady Amalia Fleming decided against living the life of leisure that would have been possible for her as the widow of a world-famous medical pioneer. Instead, she determined to return to the world of bacteriological research, even refusing the widows' pension that was rightfully hers from the Wright-Fleming Institute. Although she regularly made short visits to Greece, she spent the great bulk of her time in London concentrating on her scientific work, relatively oblivious of Greek political life.

Although she had taken on dual Greek and British citizenship when she married her late husband, Lady Fleming did not spend much time in Greece until 1962; in 1963, she spent seven months in Athens, and from 1964 through 1966 it was nine months a year. At this point, she considered herself a resident of Athens. On March 15, 1967, her last belongings from London arrived. As it turned out, the time Amalia Fleming had chosen to return home was indeed to be a fateful one in modern Greek history. For several years prior to 1967, an already volatile Greek political scene had grown ever more unpredictable. At the same time, a popular leftist leader, George Papandreou, led his party to an impressive electoral victory of 53% of the national vote. The extreme right, backed by the young and inexperienced King Constantine, became increasingly alarmed that their interests would suffer if the popularity of the leftist parties should further increase. When it became clear that elections scheduled for May 28, 1967, would likely result in a landslide victory for Papandreou's forces, the Greek military struck against the constitutional order.

On April 21, 1967, the military proclaimed Greece to be under their rule. Constitutional guarantees and liberties had been revoked in order, they argued, to save the country from chaos and Marxist upheaval. Within days, real or imagined enemies of the dictatorship found themselves behind bars. Torture and intimidation became standard methods of control for the police and bureaucracy. As soon as the enormity of what was happening sank in on Lady Fleming, she began to find ways to resist the dictatorship. The moral basis of her opposition was her powerful sense of right and wrong. In a 1971 interview, she recalled that she had been "ashamed that a dictatorship should take over in Greece—that a few self-appointed people should decide to 'save us' without our permission when there was really nothing to save us from."

From her tiny one-room apartment in Athens which she shared with a large number of cats (sometimes as many as eight), Lady Fleming organized humanitarian efforts. Of particular concern to her was the fate of political prisoners and their families. Not only were most of the prisoners subject to extreme forms of physical and psychological torture, their families were usually reduced to poverty. "When the breadwinner suddenly disappears," Fleming told a New York Times reporter, "the family has to face a terrible financial strain." Her activities on behalf of the persecuted political opposition quickly brought Lady Fleming to the attention of the military regime, but although she doubtless irritated and even angered them, they decided not to arrest her. She could claim dual British and Greek citizenship, and furthermore as the widow of a man who had been greatly respected in Greece she enjoyed a name recognition few could match. Conscious of maintaining a positive public-relations image, the Greek military kept Fleming under surveillance but hesitated to take more drastic action against her.

By 1970, Fleming's defiant acts of opposition were testing the dictatorship's patience. After testifying forcefully as a defense witness at the trial of 34 anti-regime intellectuals, her passport was revoked. But worldwide protest made the regime reconsider its action, and within two weeks her passport had been restored. At the end of 1970, about 200 anti-regime activists were arrested and held for months without trial, the main reason for their detention being a police attempt to link them to Lady Fleming's activities. In August 1971, she was "invited" by the police for an interrogation which lasted for 13 hours. Although she was threatened and bullied, Fleming refused to provide her captors with any important information they might use against their foes.

But that same month, after attempting for several years to pin specific charges of anti-state activities on Lady Fleming, the military dictatorship was finally able to make a case against her. For years, she had been particularly concerned about the fate of one political prisoner, Alexander Panagoulis. Convicted in 1968 of a failed attempt to assassinate the leading figure of the dictatorship, Premier George Papadopoulos, Panagoulis was considered a dangerous foe of the regime and was held in maximum security. It was also generally believed that he was being tortured on a routine basis, and it was reported that he had made several desperate attempts to escape his tormentors. Lady Fleming was convinced that only an immediate rescue of Panagoulis would save his life and sanity. When another rescue plot was hatched, she chose to get involved in it, helping to arrange for a getaway car. The planned escape, scheduled for August 31, 1971, did not take place, because an informant betrayed the plan to the police. Four of the plotters were arrested outside the prison, while Lady Fleming was arrested at home. At first, the police did not know of her involvement, but once the connection was established they were delighted that at long last a specific charge of criminally subversive activity could be linked to her.

The trial began on September 27, 1971, with Lady Fleming and her accomplices brought before a military tribunal. Speaking in her own defense, Fleming proudly admitted her role in the plot to free the prisoner, emphasizing the years of incarceration and torture he had already endured. She was convicted of the charges the next day and sentenced to 16 months in prison. Because she was in poor health and suffering from diabetes and its complications, the regime believed she would accept their offer of being deported. But she refused to play along, insisting she intended to remain and serve her prison term: "If I leave, they will take away my Greek citizenship. I am a Greek and I intend to stay." The international press reports of the trial, almost always to the disadvantage of the Greek military, persuaded an embarrassed dictatorship to suspend the remainder of her sentence on October 21. Permitted to return to her apartment, she was awakened there by police on the morning of November 14 and told she was being taken to the chief of police. In reality, however, Fleming was driven to the Athens airport where she was forced on board a plane bound for London.

Arriving in England some hours later, a defiant Lady Fleming at first refused to leave the plane, informing the press that if necessary she was planning to "walk back to Greece." Simultaneously with her physical expulsion from Greece, Fleming was stripped of her Greek citizenship, the charges being for ill-defined "antinational activities." Over the next several years, until the Athens dictatorship collapsed in 1974 because of its ineptitude, Amalia Fleming remained one of the most passionate defenders of Greek democracy in exile. Along with two other women, Melina Mercouri and Helen Vlachos , who stood up against the dictatorship established on April 21, 1967, Fleming embodied the unbroken spirit of Greek independence. A patriot through and through, she defined her identity as a Greek as "an incurable disease that nothing and no one can treat or change."

After returning to Greece in 1974, Amalia Fleming became active in national politics. Fiercely independent, she at first feuded with Papandreou but in 1977 he asked her to join the national list of his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok). She was elected to Greek Parliament in 1977 and re-elected in 1981 and 1985. She was also a delegate to the Council of Europe Assembly and was proud of having been chosen first chair of the Greek chapter of Amnesty International. Although a conscientious parliamentary deputy, Fleming thought of herself as being more of a humanitarian than a politician, often describing her career in terms of having been "a reluctant political campaigner, interested in social reforms, not public offices." Both during the seven years of dictatorship and the twelve years of life that remained to her after 1974, Lady Fleming tended to neglect her own fragile health, more concerned with what she could do for others. In 1971, she had compared her work during the Nazi occupation of World War II with her efforts to end the military dictatorship: "In those days I was working for humanitarian ideals. I thought I was right then, and I think I'm right now."


Anastasi, Paul. "Lady Fleming Dies in Athens; Foe of Nazis and Army Junta," in The New York Times Biographical Service. February 1986, p. 296.

Becket, James. Barbarism in Greece. NY: Walker, 1970.

Clogg, Richard, and George Yannopoulos, eds. Greece Under Military Rule. NY: Basic Books, 1972.

Council of Europe. European Commission on Human Rights. The Greek Case: Report of the Commission. 4 vols. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1969.

Danopoulos, Constantine P. "Military Professionalism and Regime Legitimacy in Greece, 1967-1974," in Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 98, no. 3. Fall 1983, pp. 485–506.

Fleming, Amalia. A Piece of Truth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Korovessis, Pericles. The Method. London: Allison and Busby, 1970.

"Lady Fleming: Greek Patriot and Politician," in The Times (London). February 27, 1986, p. 14.

Macfarlane, Gwyn. Alexander Fleming: The Man and the Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia