Maurice Lindsay (1918-2009), poet and broadcaster, nominated
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)
There was a crisis of identity in Scotland around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. A move was afoot to abandon the name Scotland in favour of North Britain; a move, alas!, supported at one stage in his career by none other than James Boswell.
Burns – not chosen as one of my 'greatest' simply because he will doubtless have had many other promoters – preceded by Ramsay and Fergusson, through his genius and widespread popularity as a poet, saved the 'guid Scots tongue' from oblivion under pressure of English, and certainly gave it continuing literary validity. The other partner in this salvation of Scotland was Sir Walter Scott.
Until the publication of the Scottish stories in the Waverley Novels series, ordinary people in Scotland must have been largely ignorant of the history of their country, having no ready access to official papers and the like. In those novels – the great novels, indeed, like 'The Fortunes of Nigel,' 'Guy Mannering,' 'Rob Roy,' 'Old Mortality' and 'Waverley' itself – Scott presented many of the confrontation points of Scottish history in a compelling and readable manner. Contrary to popular belief, though he did not disguise his affection for the past and its customs, he always came down on the side of change.
At his best, or even at his most prosey, common to all Scott's novels is the way in which he made creative use of history. His practice was to establish a series of generalised historical backcloths, complete with minor figures – Highland social conditions just before 1715 in 'Rob Roy,' the Porteous affair after 1707 in 'The Heart of Midlothian' and the consequence for Jacobite hopes after the shattering defeat of Culloden in 'Redgauntlet' – then fit in the foreground the main characters, mostly of his own creation; but sometimes incorporating aspects of actual people, though not usually placed precisely in their real-life context.
Scott also made use of remarks or turns of phrase which had stuck in his capacious memory. The value of Scott's antiquarian and historical knowledge was that where the reuse of a phrase or a custom was, strictly speaking, an anachronism, he could give it a meaningful turn, thus making it add to the sense of the realistic. He certainly believed in the value of the historical novel, both as a means of keeping alive a knowledge of traditions among those who never read history and as an added stimulus to those who did.
Alexander Fleming, the son of an Ayrshire farmer, was born at Lichfield in 1881. He came to London when he was 14 and worked for a time as a clerk in a shipping office before enrolling as a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital in 1902. After qualifying in 1906, he joined the Inoculation Department under Almonth Wright and rapidly gained experience in the treatment of bacterial diseases by vaccines and chemotherapy, notably employing Salvarson in the treatment of syphilis, something no doubt useful when he and Wright served in the military hospital at Boulogne during World War II. By 1928, he held professorial status.
By 1922, Fleming had already discovered lysozyme. It was while studying this that he noticed an unusual mould growing on a neglected culture dish. This he isolated and grew into a pure culture, which turned out to be penicillin, or Penicillium notatum, to give it its proper title.
It is, perhaps, odd to reflect that Scott's novels, once so avidly devoured, now reach a mass readership only after one of them has been serialised on television and a paperback follow-up issued. At least such visually prompted readership demonstrates their inherent quality and value. Similarly, in the case of antibiotics, of which penicillin was the forerunner, human greed has resulted in these life-saving drugs being fed to animals likely to enter the food-chain, in order to increase their growth; a practice, we are warned, liable to lessen their effectiveness when prescribed for humans.
Odd, is it not, how we choose to use the good things great men bequeath to us?