Selman Waksman, “father of antibiotics” and conquest of tuberculosis

Dr. Selman Waksman, half-length portrait, facing left at work in the laboratory
[Dr. Selman Waksman, half-length portrait, facing left at work in the laboratory] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Roger Higgins. 1953. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Selman Abraham Waksman came to the United States in 1910 and worked for a few years on a farm in New Jersey. Born in a rural town in Ukraine in 1888, he had become familiar as a child with that country’s rich black soil and developed an interest that later influenced the direction of his research endeavors.1

Waksman attended Rutgers College (University), graduated in 1915, and received a Master of Science degree the next year. All along he studied the bacteria of the soil, in which he eventually became an expert. After receiving his doctorate from Berkeley, he began work in the bacteriology department at Rutgers. There in his laboratory in 1927 a young French biologist, Rene Dubois, isolated a soil bacterium able to attack the capsular polysaccharide of Streptococcus pneumoniae.2 This discovery inspired Waksman to look for other antibacterial organisms in soil samples. The first such agent, isolated from the actinomycetes family, was effective but highly toxic.2 More than twenty new substances were subsequently isolated in Waksman’s laboratory, including neomycin, still widely used as an external antibiotic. In August 1944, Dr. Schatz, a 23-year-old graduate student working in his laboratory isolated streptomycin, produced by the bacterium Streptomyces griseus. Waksman arranged for the Mayo Clinic to test the substance in guinea pigs and then in humans. It proved effective in the treatment of tuberculosis, the traditional and much-feared “captain of all these men of death” for which no effective cure had ever been available. It also was shown to be useful in combination with penicillin for many other kinds of infections, and as a result of a collaboration with the Merck Company was soon produced in bulk quantities.3-5

Waksman patented and licensed his promising antibiotic, but did not recognize the work of Schatz, who sued him.4,5 Eventually a settlement was reached, recognizing Dr. Schatz as “co-discoverer” of streptomycin and giving him and several assistants a share of the royalties. However, 80% of the earnings went to Rutgers University.4,5 In 1951 Dr. Waksman established an Institute of Microbiology and later a Foundation for Microbiology. He won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1952 for his “ingenious, systematic and successful studies of the soil microbes that led to the discovery of streptomycin” and was called “one of the greatest benefactors to mankind.” He received many other honors, such as the French Légion d’honneur and the Japanese Star of the Rising Sun. He died in 1973. For his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, he has been called the “Father of Antibiotics.”

 

References

  1. Sakula A.: Selman Waksman (1888-1973)) discoverer of streptomycin: a centenary review. J. Dis. Chest 1988; 82: 23
  2. Waksman, S. A., and Tishler, M. The Chemical Nature of Actinomycin, an Anti-microbial Substance Produced by Actinomyces Antibioticus. J. Biol. Chem 1942: 142: 519.
  3. Waksman, S. A, Tenth Anniversary of the Discovery of Streptomycin, the First Chemotherapeutic Agent Found to Be Effective Against Tuberculosis in Humans. Amer. Review Tuberculosis 1954;70:1
  4. Wainwright M. Streptomycin: Discovery and Resultant Controversy, in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 1991;13:97
  5. Schatz A, Bugie, E, Waksman, S :. Streptomycin, a Substance Exhibiting Antibiotic Activity against Gram-Positive and Gram-Negative Bacteria. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 2005; 437 – Issue p 3-6

 


 

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

 

 

Highlighted Vignette Volume 13, Issue 3– Summer 2021

Winter 2021  |  Sections  |  Moments in History