Man of the Earth. Essay on the biography and scientific activity of Selman Waksman

The first «brain drain» from the Russian Empire began at the begin­ning of the last cen­tu­ry. It was the time when spe­cial­ists and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors began to leave the Empire destroyed by rev­o­lu­tions, the First World War and the Civil War. At that time there were no tra­di­tion­al routes for Russian emi­grants. They were scat­tered all over the world, look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties to realise their ideas in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. As part of the “Creators” project, T-invari­ant, togeth­er with RASA (Russian-American Science Association) and with sup­port from Richard Lounsbery Foundation, is begin­ning to pub­lish a series of bio­graph­i­cal essays about peo­ple from the Russian Empire who made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to glob­al sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, about those to whom we owe our new real­i­ty. The first essay is ded­i­cat­ed to Selman Waksman, Nobel Prize win­ner and dis­cov­er­er of the antibi­ot­ic streptomycin.

At the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry Novaya Priluka was an ordi­nary Jewish town (more pre­cise­ly miasteczko) in Berdichev uezd of Kiev Governorate. The town appeared like a tiny dot in the end­less black earth steppe. One of the most famous micro­bi­ol­o­gists of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Selman Waksman*, was born and raised here. He spent most of his life far away from here — in the oth­er hemi­sphere, in the United States, in New Jersey. But when he was award­ed the Nobel Prize for the dis­cov­ery of strep­to­mycin, the first cure for tuber­cu­lo­sis, Waksman took words from the Bible as epi­graph for his Nobel lec­ture: “The Lord hath cre­at­ed med­i­cines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them” (Ecclesiasticus, XXXVIII, 4). Thus, Waksman paid trib­ute both to the Ukrainian black earth and to his melameds who taught him to read in the Priluka ched­er. However, it was not only a rhetor­i­cal fig­ure, but also a state­ment of a sci­en­tif­ic fact: strep­to­mycin was indeed obtained “out of the earth,” and from soil microor­gan­isms — actinomycetes.


Selman Abraham Waksman titled his auto­bi­og­ra­phy My Life with the Microbes. This is also the title of the first chap­ter of the book. It begins with these words: “I have devot­ed my life to the study of microbes, those infin­i­tes­i­mal forms of life which play such impor­tant roles in the life of man, ani­mals, and plants. I have stud­ied their nature, life process­es, and their rela­tion to man, help­ing him and destroy­ing him… I have con­tem­plat­ed the destruc­tive capac­i­ties of some microbes and the con­struc­tive activ­i­ties of oth­ers. I have tried to find ways and means for dis­cour­ag­ing the first and encour­ag­ing the sec­ond.” (3)1

As a young researcher, Waksman became inter­est­ed in a spe­cial kind of microbe that lives in the soil: actin­o­mycete. They are strange organisms.


Today they are cer­tain­ly called bac­te­ria, but in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry there were sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences. If they are bac­te­ria, they are rather unusu­al. Actinomycetes form a myceli­um con­sist­ing of a mass of branched, fil­a­men­tous struc­tures. That is, they behave like fun­gi. This strange­ness is enough to arouse our inter­est in them.

But there was anoth­er rea­son why Waksman became fas­ci­nat­ed with these microor­gan­isms in 1916, when he was pur­su­ing his doc­tor­ate at the University of California at Berkeley. He found that actin­o­mycetes are capa­ble of sup­press­ing the growth of oth­er bac­te­ria. In his Nobel lec­ture, Waksman remind­ed that even then he select­ed one of the actin­o­mycete species and named it Actinomyces griseus. Waksman not­ed that this species has antimi­cro­bial prop­er­ties. But this actin­o­mycete species, which was renamed Streptomyces griseus in 1943 and played an impor­tant role in the dis­cov­ery of strep­to­mycin, was not stud­ied in detail by Waksman in 1916.

It was inter­est in actin­o­mycetes that led Waksman to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly search for antibi­otics in the late 1930s. The word antibi­ot­ic itself was also sug­gest­ed by Waksman.2

Novaya Priluka

Selman Abraham Waksman was born and raised in the town of Novaya (New) Priluka, in Berdichev uezd of Kiev Governorate on July 22, 1888. Waksman described his birth­place as “a bleak town, a mere dot in the bound­less steppes.”. In sum­mer, wheat, rye, bar­ley and oats grew in these end­less fields. In win­ter, the steppes were cov­ered with snow. “The earth was black, giv­ing rise to the very name for that type of soil, tch­er­nozem, or black earth. The soil was high­ly pro­duc­tive, yield­ing numer­ous crops, grown con­tin­u­ous­ly for many years, with­out dimin­ish­ing returns.” (17)

Waksman was named after Solomon, the bib­li­cal King of Kings, whose name was reduced to “Zolman” in Yiddish (the vari­ant “Selman” already appeared in America). Selman’s father, Yakov Waksman, was a pious man and lived mod­est­ly, rent­ing small hous­es in neigh­bor­ing vil­lages and in the town of Vinnitsa, which he owned. Life as a pen­sion­er left him enough free time, and he devot­ed his days to prayer and atten­dance at the local syn­a­gogue. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Waksman describes his father as a won­der­ful sto­ry­teller who loved edi­fy­ing para­bles about the sages of antiq­ui­ty and about the cen­turies-old his­to­ry of the Jewish people.

When Selman was born, his father was absolute­ly hap­py, but soon he was draft­ed into the army, where he served for five years. The two were not par­tic­u­lar­ly close, although Yakov Waksman always tried to help his son in any way he could. The truth was — he could not do much.

The most impor­tant per­son in Waksman’s child­hood and youth was his moth­er Fraida Waksman (her maid­en name was London). She was edu­cat­ed, espe­cial­ly for a woman of that time. She read Yiddish, spoke enough Hebrew to under­stand the Bible, and spoke Ukrainian. All of this ben­e­fit­ed her greatly.

As Waksman recalls, his moth­er mar­ried late (almost at the age lim­it of the time — 27 years) because she was too busy mar­ry­ing off her younger sis­ters. She built a house (not par­tic­u­lar­ly lux­u­ri­ous, but her own). In it lived her sis­ters with nephews and nieces and her moth­er. Fraida was a real Yiddish mame — pow­er­ful and respon­si­ble. All this kahal had to be fed, and she depend­ed on a small dry goods busi­ness for income. And on fair days, which were quite fre­quent in the Berdichevsky Yezd, Fraida always orga­nized a trav­el­ing trade. Her hos­pi­tal­i­ty and care for her sis­ters and nephews were a great help to Selman in the future when she was no longer alive. In New Jersey he was wel­comed and embraced by a cousin who once lived for a long time in Fraida’s house, cradling lit­tle Selman and singing lul­la­bies to him.

When his father returned from the army, Waksman had a sis­ter, Miriam. She died of diph­the­ria in ear­ly child­hood. Waksman writes that she could have sur­vived, but the cure from Kiev, two hun­dred miles from home, came too late. Whether or not it would save a sick child is unknown, but Waksman was very upset by Miriam’s death: “As I watched her die,” he wrote, “my child­ish and obser­vant mind may have spec­u­lat­ed on the pos­si­ble effect of the cura­tive agents upon the dis­ease and the poten­tial sal­va­tion of her life. Here for the first time, I was brought in con­tact with a prob­lem that was lat­er to receive much of my atten­tion.” (29)

in 1952, the same year that Waksman received the Nobel Prize, it was announced that a new diph­the­ria drug, ery­thromycin, had appeared. It was derived from actin­o­mycetes, which Waksman had stud­ied so thoroughly.

At the age of five, Waksman joined the local ched­er, where melamed taught Jewish chil­dren to read the Torah. Then edu­ca­tion broad­ened, and the future micro­bi­ol­o­gist began read­ing books of the prophets and study­ing the Talmud. But Fraida did not give birth to her only son so that he would be lim­it­ed to these sub­jects. She was con­vinced that a ched­er was not enough and hired pri­vate tutors to teach the ten-year-old boy Hebrew, Russian lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, arith­metic, and geog­ra­phy. Waksman writes that by the age of thir­teen he knew the Bible and Talmud well and was rea­son­ably flu­ent in Russian. From the age of ten, Waksman began to teach. First, he taught ched­er stu­dents to read and write, then he began to pre­pare chil­dren from wealthy fam­i­lies to attend sec­u­lar schools. He began to earn, and this mon­ey went to his teachers.

Waksman was prepar­ing to take the exams at the gym­na­si­um. It was dif­fi­cult to get ahead. And because there was already a per­cent­age norm for Jews: their share should not exceed a strict­ly defined and small per­cent­age of stu­dents, which led to strong com­pe­ti­tion among the Jews them­selves. And because there were no gym­na­si­ums in Berdichev or in near­est Vinnitsa. And the way to the uni­ver­si­ty was just through the gym­na­si­um. Vaksman pre­pared to take exter­nal exams for the first six years of study in order to enter the sev­enth grade of a gym­na­si­um in Zhytomyr. However, this attempt failed. Waksman took an exam in geog­ra­phy. The teacher who admin­is­tered the exam asked him: Which riv­er flows in Berlin? Waksman knew the rivers of Germany very well, but he could not remem­ber which riv­er flows in Berlin. He tried to talk about the Rhine and the Elbe, the Main and the Oder, but the teacher was adamant. He need­ed the exact answer. He did not get it and gave Waksman a “0.” He was not allowed to sit for the next exam. And he was already 17 years old.

20 years lat­er, when Waksman came to Berlin for a sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence, he stood on the bridge over the Spree and almost burst into tears. What a small riv­er! How can it be com­pared with the Rhine! What did this teacher need it for!

Fraida was upset no less than her son. His father had a house in Vinnitsa, which he rent­ed out. And Waksman moved to Vinnitsa to study with stronger teach­ers. Then he went to Odessa with friends, where he stud­ied with real high school teach­ers. It was not cheap. But Fraida was not sor­ry for any­thing, and Waksman him­self grad­u­al­ly earned a lit­tle from teach­ing. Most impor­tant­ly, the teach­ers with whom Waksman and his com­rades stud­ied in the evenings also took exams from exter­nal stu­dents. And this time, Waksman suc­ceed­ed. He was 21 years old. He had a high school diplo­ma. It was pos­si­ble to try to go to uni­ver­si­ty. Although the per­cent­age for Jews was tight­ened again, there was still a chance.

And then Fraida died. The father mar­ried quick­ly. There was nowhere to return to Priluka, and there was no need. Waksman had long been called by his cousins who had gone to America. And he decid­ed to change his life drastically.

They left the Russian Empire by train. Three boys and two girls from the town. As the train crossed the German bor­der, they sang, qui­et­ly at first, then loud­er and loud­er, all the way through the train car, “We have shak­en the shack­les off our feet. We are enter­ing upon a new world, a free world, where Man is free.”

They believed that a great, free coun­try was wait­ing for them, that a won­der­ful new life await­ed them: from Novaya Priluka — straight to the New World.

The year was 1910. Waksman returned to Novaya Priluka once again. For 10 days in 1924. It would have been bet­ter if he had not.

New Jersey

In the fall of 1910, the ship car­ry­ing Waksman and his friends came from Hamburg to Philadelphia. Here the Priluky boys and girls part­ed ways. Waksman was greet­ed by cousins and trav­eled to his fam­i­ly in New Jersey.

His cousin had a small farm and a chick­en coop. Today, when we trace very quick­ly the path that Waksman took step by step, over­com­ing enor­mous dif­fi­cul­ties, we can­not get rid of the thought that he was lit­er­al­ly guid­ed by the hand of Providence. It was on this farm that Waksman first worked with chick­ens. And here’s what he wrote in 1964: “If you ask who was respon­si­ble for the iso­la­tion of the par­tic­u­lar strep­to­mycin-pro­duc­ing strain of Streptomyces griseus, the answer must be that it was the chick­en, because it was she who picked up the cul­ture from the soil.” 3. The strain of Streptomyces griseus from which strep­to­mycin was iso­lat­ed was in the chick­en’s throat.

Waksman spent the first months of his stay in America on a farm. There was lit­tle work in the win­ter, and he stud­ied main­ly English: he read English and American lit­er­a­ture. What exact­ly he read, Waksman does not men­tion in his mem­oirs. But prob­a­bly some­thing instruc­tive. He nev­er liked lit­er­a­ture with­out cor­rect morals.

As Waksman writes, in his youth he had an almost per­fect visu­al mem­o­ry. He could read a page and mem­o­rize it. But for this amaz­ing abil­i­ty, nature took from him a rather harsh com­pen­sa­tion: he could not remem­ber well from hear­ing. Even as a stu­dent, he care­ful­ly wrote down lec­tures to read lat­er and keep them in his mem­o­ry forever.

At the sug­ges­tion of his cousin, he vis­it­ed near­by Rutgers University. There he met Dr. Jacob Lipman, an immi­grant from Russia, who encour­aged him to enter in the College of Agriculture. Waksman reluc­tant­ly agreed. He want­ed to study med­i­cine. But I had to come to terms with that: there just was not enough mon­ey for medicine.

And again, the hand of prov­i­dence. Pediatrician Arvid Wallgren, pro­fes­sor at The Caroline Medical Institute and a mem­ber of the Nobel Committee, in announc­ing the award of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, said, “Neither are you a phys­i­ol­o­gist nor a physi­cian, but still your con­tri­bu­tion to the advance­ment of med­i­cine has been of para­mount impor­tance. Streptomycin has already saved thou­sands of human lives. As physi­cians, we regard you as one of the great­est bene­fac­tors to mankind.” No, Waksman did not become a physi­cian, he did much more: he gave physi­cians a weapon to fight.

In 1911, Waksman entered Rutgers. He stud­ied dili­gent­ly and began work­ing with soil bac­te­ria in his fourth year. It was at this time that he first drew atten­tion to actin­o­mycetes. These microor­gan­isms became the main sub­ject of his mas­ter’s the­sis at Rutgers and his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion at Berkeley (University of California at Berkeley), where he stud­ied and worked from 1916 to 1918. But the first antibi­otics were still very far away.

In 1916, Waksman became a U.S. cit­i­zen. He mar­ried Deborah Mitnick, whom he affec­tion­ate­ly called Boboli. He had known her since child­hood. She was the younger sis­ter of his friend from Priluka, with whom they had come to America togeth­er. Boboli stayed home, but they agreed that she would def­i­nite­ly join them once the young men had set­tled in nor­mal­ly and could help her. The young peo­ple set­tled in. She arrived. And every­thing worked out for the best. When a son was born to the Waksmans in 1919, he was named not at all canon­i­cal­ly in hon­or of one of Selman Waksman’s first teach­ers, Byron Halsted. And Byron Halsted Waksman did not dis­grace his last name, becom­ing a famous micro­bi­ol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor at Yale.

Waksman returned to Rutgers from Berkeley in 1918. He began lec­tur­ing on soil micro­bi­ol­o­gy at the col­lege and was appoint­ed to a spe­cial­ly cre­at­ed posi­tion of “micro­bi­ol­o­gist” at the col­lege’s agri­cul­tur­al sta­tion. He insist­ed that his spe­cial­ty be called “micro­bi­ol­o­gy” rather than the more tra­di­tion­al­ly “bac­te­ri­ol­o­gy”, because he was inter­est­ed in actin­o­mycetes rather than clas­si­cal bacteria.

A search for antibiotics. Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What

Waksman first became inter­est­ed in actin­o­mycetes in 1915 as a stu­dent at Rutgers University. In the decades that fol­lowed, he stud­ied their dis­tri­b­u­tion and abun­dance, their tax­on­o­my, their role in process­es such as the decom­po­si­tion of plant and ani­mal remains and the for­ma­tion of humus, and their rela­tion­ship to bac­te­ria and fungi.

Waksman and his col­leagues knew of the exis­tence of Streptomyces griseus, the microor­gan­ism from which the strep­to­mycin strain was even­tu­al­ly derived, from the begin­ning of their research on actin­o­mycetes at Rutgers, but its antibac­te­r­i­al prop­er­ties were not test­ed for sev­er­al decades.

In 1924, after sev­er­al years of soil research, Waksman and his wife spent six months in Europe, where they returned for the first time since immi­grat­ing to the United States.

They vis­it­ed Novaya Priluka. But it was a very hard come­back. Waksman wrote: “The great­est mis­ery that one could ever imag­ine, the great­est cat­a­stro­phe that the peo­ples in Russia have gone through; the great­est exper­i­ment in social and polit­i­cal rela­tions of men can hard­ly express what we have seen (dur­ing the last few days).” (145). The Waksmans spent ten days in Priluky lis­ten­ing to fam­i­ly and friends describe their plight: “Each one suf­fered to an extreme. Many cried like chil­dren before their father; they came to pour out before us all their suf­fer­ings.” (146). They asked for help. But there was noth­ing to help with.

However, the main rea­son for the trip was sci­ence. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Waksman wrote: “There was no ques­tion in my mind con­cern­ing the role of microor­gan­isms in soil process­es, but there was a cer­tain ques­tion that was con­tin­u­ous­ly aris­ing as to whether I was head­ed in the right direc­tion.” (120).

To answer this ques­tion, Waksman vis­it­ed sci­en­tif­ic lab­o­ra­to­ries in France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia, where he dis­cussed meth­ods and research on microor­gan­isms with lead­ing sci­en­tists work­ing in the fields of biol­o­gy and soil chem­istry. He returned to the United States inspired by his knowl­edge and con­vinced of the need for a com­pre­hen­sive trea­tise on soil micro­bi­ol­o­gy. And such a trea­tise was pub­lished in 1927 under the title “Principles of Soil Microbiology.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Waksman con­tin­ued his stud­ies of actin­o­mycetes, but his main research activ­i­ty focused on the soil microbes them­selves rather than on their effects on dis­ease-caus­ing organ­isms. In 1939, there were two events that changed many things. The first was the out­break of World War II, which led to the need to devel­op new drugs to com­bat infec­tious dis­eases and epi­demics that always accom­pa­ny wars. The sec­ond devel­op­ment, Waksman’s “spe­cial stim­u­lus,” was the work of René Dubos, a for­mer stu­dent of Waksman’s, who iso­lat­ed tyrothricin, which kills dis­ease-caus­ing bacteria.

Dubos showed that it is pos­si­ble to find bac­te­ria that inhib­it the growth of oth­er bac­te­ria. Pioneers in infec­tious dis­ease research, such as the dis­cov­er­er of the tuber­cle bacil­lus Robert Koch, were afraid of non-ster­ile sub­stances and avoid­ed con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Dubos did just the oppo­site, using a drug lit­er­al­ly “extract­ed from the dirt” to fight infec­tious dis­eases. Waksman drew inspi­ra­tion from this con­cep­tu­al break­through and pushed for­ward with the search for new agents in soil that were active against dis­ease-caus­ing bac­te­ria. Unlike Dubos, how­ev­er, Waksman focused not on bac­te­ria but on fun­gi and, in par­tic­u­lar, actinomycetes.

If Sir Alexander Fleming dis­cov­ered peni­cillin large­ly by acci­dent — he noticed that a bac­te­r­i­al pathogen was infect­ed with a mold that had lit­er­al­ly flown through the air — Waksman approached the search for antibi­otics sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. He and his stu­dents con­duct­ed a painstak­ing, method­i­cal, sequen­tial screening.

First, colonies of soil microbes were iso­lat­ed on agar plates. Then these microbes were test­ed on spe­cial­ly iso­lat­ed pathogens. It was a long, tedious job as thou­sands of cul­tures of var­i­ous microbes were iso­lat­ed and then test­ed for their antibac­te­r­i­al activ­i­ty against many, many pathogens. Only a few cul­tures have shown antipath­o­gen­ic prop­er­ties. These few cul­tures were sub­ject­ed to fur­ther test­ing to iden­ti­fy those among them that would pro­duce ger­mi­ci­dal sub­stances in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ty. And then, from these microor­gan­isms, those that were not too tox­ic for ther­a­peu­tic use, i.e., would not poi­son humans, were selected.

In 1949, Time mag­a­zine wrote about Waksman’s dis­cov­ery of neomycin in an arti­cle titled “Man of the Soil”: “People are always ask­ing grey­ing Microbiologist Selman Abraham Waksman, 60, how he dis­cov­ered the won­der drug strep­to­mycin in 1943. Modest Dr. Waksman… has a stock answer which makes it sound pret­ty sim­ple. He mere­ly exam­ined about 10,000 cul­tures, he explains. Only 1,000 would kill bac­te­ria in pre­lim­i­nary tests; only 100 looked promis­ing in lat­er tests; only ten were iso­lat­ed and described; one of the ten proved to be strep­to­mycin. It just hap­pened that strep­to­mycin was the first effec­tive drug that doc­tors had ever found to fight tuber­cu­lo­sis.” 4

On the out­side, every­thing actu­al­ly looks quite sim­ple, albeit labo­ri­ous. But until clin­i­cal tri­als on humans took place, no one was sure that the dis­cov­ery had been made and that strep­to­mycin was real­ly some­thing use­ful and not just anoth­er dose of poi­son that killed bac­te­ria but didn’t make it any eas­i­er on humans.

The screen­ing pro­to­col pro­posed by Waksman to search for antibi­otics can be com­pared to ana­log mul­ti­vari­able opti­miza­tion. But there are so many para­me­ters, and they are so weak­ly for­mal­ized, that there is gen­er­al­ly no guar­an­tee that the process will con­verge to an opti­mal point that will become a true cure. No one could give such a guar­an­tee. And that opti­miza­tion was found by Waksman’s stu­dent Albert Schatz. Of course, it is luck. And it is a coin­ci­dence. But as Louis Pasteur said, “Luck favors the pre­pared mind.”
The Schatz was ready. And it was pre­pared in the first place by Waksman.

Cross-streak­ing tech­nol­o­gy. Actinomycetes (hor­i­zon­tal strip) and var­i­ous pathogens (ver­ti­cal strips) are seed­ed on agar plates. Once the pathogen reach­es the actin­o­mycete, an antag­o­nism area is cre­at­ed where the actin­o­mycete inhibits the growth of the pathogen. If the antag­o­nism zone is not present, the actin­o­mycete does not act against the pathogen. There are tens of thou­sands of such experiences.
Rutgers University Archives.

Waksman’s screen­ing pro­to­cols iden­ti­fied about twen­ty new nat­ur­al antipathogens, most of which were derived from actin­o­mycetes. It was Waksman who coined the term antibi­otics, now in com­mon use, for these ther­a­peu­tic agents (see Note 2). The first drug iso­lat­ed in 1940 as part of the first screen­ing pro­gram was actin­o­mycin. It was devel­oped by Boyd Woodruff, Waksman’s grad­u­ate stu­dent. Actinomycin was effec­tive against a vari­ety of bac­te­ria and even a strain of tuber­cu­lo­sis, but proved too tox­ic for ther­a­py in humans.5

Two years lat­er, Woodruff iso­lat­ed strep­tothricin, an antibi­ot­ic that was effec­tive against both Gram-pos­i­tive and Gram-neg­a­tive bac­te­ria. 6 Researchers were excit­ed about strep­tothricin because, as Waksman said in his Nobel Prize speech, it “promised to fill the gap left by peni­cillin in the treat­ment of infec­tious dis­eases caused by Gram-neg­a­tive bacteria”

Streptothricin is not only effec­tive against Gram-pos­i­tive and Gram-neg­a­tive bac­te­ria, but also proved to be non­tox­ic to ani­mals in ini­tial tri­als. However, in sub­se­quent exper­i­ments, strep­tothricin was found to still be tox­ic, but not imme­di­ate­ly, but only as a slow-act­ing tox­in, which is why it is not suit­able for humans.

The par­tial suc­cess of strep­tothricin showed that Waksman and his stu­dents were on the right track. It was nec­es­sary to find a vari­ant that sup­pressed path­o­gen­ic organ­isms with­out killing the host organism.

Albert Schatz (left) and Selman Waksman. Rutgers University Archives.

The break­through came in 1943 when Albert Schatz joined the team and, build­ing on Woodruff’s approach, found two strep­to­mycin-pro­duc­ing strains of Streptomyces griseus. One of these was dis­cov­ered by chance when Doris Jones, anoth­er Waksman stu­dent, exam­ined the tra­cheal flo­ra of chick­ens and not­ed antag­o­nism areas on sev­er­al plates.

The cul­tures were giv­en to Schatz, and from one of them he iso­lat­ed an active strain of Streptomyces griseus that pro­duced an antibi­ot­ic that sup­pressed both gram-neg­a­tive and gram-pos­i­tive bac­te­ria. Even more inter­est­ing to the researchers was that strep­to­mycin was effec­tive in vit­ro against Mycobacterium tuber­cu­lo­sis, the “Great White Plague“7

The Trials of Streptomycin

Selman Waksman and his group of stu­dents knew from their own in vit­ro exper­i­ments that strep­to­mycin is active against the tuber­cu­lo­sis pathogen. Waksman was aware, how­ev­er, that his small lab­o­ra­to­ry at Rutgers University was not equipped for fur­ther test­ing, let alone in vivo tri­als. So Waksman approached two Mayo Clinic med­ical researchers — William H. Feldman and H. Corwin Hinshaw — about con­duct­ing ani­mal exper­i­ments with guinea pigs. Feldman replied on March 7, 1944, that “we are in a posi­tion to make such a test” if Waksman could obtain enough sam­ples of the com­pound.8

Waksman was able to pro­vide the Mayo Clinic with a suf­fi­cient num­ber of sam­ples thanks to a ten­ta­tive agree­ment with Merck & Company made in late 1939. Under this agree­ment, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal giant pro­vid­ed a grant to Waksman’s lab­o­ra­to­ries for antibi­ot­ic test­ing. In addi­tion, under this agree­ment, the com­pa­ny promised to pro­vide assis­tance in chem­i­cal analy­sis, to pro­vide exper­i­men­tal ani­mals for phar­ma­co­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion of antibi­otics, and to pro­vide equip­ment for the man­u­fac­ture of promis­ing drugs. In return, Waksman let Merck have all the patents that result­ed from research in his lab. If any of the patents were com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful, Merck had to pay a small roy­al­ty to the Rutgers Foundation (203-204).

(Left to right) Selman Waksman, Randolph Major (Research Director, Merck and Co.), and Sir Alexander Fleming (Nobel Prize win­ner, dis­cov­er­er of peni­cillin). Rutgers University, 1940s. (Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.) Waksman demon­strates cross-streak­ing tech­nol­o­gy to his colleagues.

And Merck faith­ful­ly adhered to the terms of the agree­ment: the com­pa­ny set up pro­duc­tion of strep­to­mycin in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties for lab­o­ra­to­ry testing.

Waksman also helped set up pro­duc­tion. First, he sent his stu­dent Boyd Woodruff, one of the dis­cov­er­ers of strep­tothricin, to Merck. In his mem­oir pub­lished in 2014, Woodruff writes that, in his opin­ion, the high­est cred­it (no less than the dis­cov­ery of strep­to­mycin) deserves the sub­merged liq­uid fer­men­ta­tion method, which was brought to tech­no­log­i­cal imple­men­ta­tion by Waksman and intro­duced at Merck.

In gen­er­al, the method pro­ceeds as fol­lows (antibi­otics are still pre­pared this way). The antibi­ot­ic can be iso­lat­ed direct­ly from the cul­ture in a Petri dish. But very lit­tle comes out of it. In sub­merged fer­men­ta­tion, the bac­te­ria are placed in a biore­ac­tor (a large tank) along with a nutri­ent medi­um. The medi­um is con­stant­ly oxy­genat­ed and peri­od­i­cal­ly shak­en. And the bac­te­ria pro­duce the antibi­ot­ic (it is their sec­ondary metabo­lite).

At a pre­cise­ly cal­cu­lat­ed moment, when there is already a lot of antibi­ot­ic, but the bac­te­ria are still alive, the antibi­ot­ic is iso­lat­ed, for exam­ple, dis­solved in a cer­tain organ­ic sol­vent. And then they crys­tal­lize. Each step requires extra­or­di­nary pre­ci­sion. When Woodruff joined Merck, he was work­ing on immer­sion tech­nol­o­gy for mak­ing peni­cillin. The tech­nol­o­gy was then test­ed. And when large quan­ti­ties of strep­to­mycin were need­ed, the biore­ac­tors were ready. And Merck, of course, under­stood what it owed to Waksman and his students.

Using sam­ples pro­vid­ed by Merck, Feldman and Hinshaw began in vivo test­ing and report­ed to Waksman two months lat­er that two guinea pigs infect­ed with tuber­cle bacil­lus but treat­ed with strep­to­mycin “looked very good”

In 1944, Mayo Clinic staff con­duct­ed exper­i­ments on tuber­cu­lous guinea pigs, vary­ing the dosage of the drug to min­i­mize side effects. Feldman told Waksman in July that “the results look sat­is­fac­to­ry,” even though the dose was reduced. The dose reduc­tion that Feldman and Hinshaw achieved was a real break­through. Previously, strep­to­mycin had too many side effects and, worse, the tuber­cle bacil­lus devel­oped resis­tance to it. The drug no longer worked.

In September, when a large 60-day in vivo tri­al was com­plet­ed, Feldman wrote that “the signs of tuber­cu­lo­sis were absent in almost all cas­es” In 1945, human clin­i­cal tri­als con­firmed the results of the ani­mal tests, and Hinshaw report­ed in August that thir­ty-three patients had been treat­ed “and we remain quite opti­mistic”. And now things were get­ting very serious.

Entering the market for streptomycin

As a result of the tests, strep­to­mycin was proven to be the first effec­tive chemother­a­peu­tic agent for the treat­ment of tuber­cu­lo­sis. In addi­tion, it proved effec­tive against a num­ber of oth­er dis­eases: typhoid fever, cholera, bubon­ic plague, tularemia, uri­nary tract infec­tions, etc. As ear­ly as 1945, Waksman real­ized that strep­to­mycin would become an impor­tant antibi­ot­ic and approached Merck with a request to ter­mi­nate the 1939 agree­ment so that oth­er phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies could pro­duce strep­to­mycin and the drug could be brought to mar­ket quick­ly and at a min­i­mal price.

And Merck was gen­er­ous. The com­pa­ny agreed to assign exclu­sive patent rights to Rutgers and accept a nonex­clu­sive license to man­u­fac­ture strep­to­mycin. In addi­tion, Merck demand­ed and received roy­al­ties to off­set the funds spent direct­ly on the devel­op­ment of strep­to­mycin. Merck was praised for its gen­eros­i­ty, and Rutgers entered into licens­ing agree­ments with oth­er phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal companies.

Because strep­to­mycin could be used against a wide range of dis­eases, includ­ing tuber­cu­lo­sis, it brought enor­mous prof­its almost imme­di­ate­ly. Initially, the Rutgers Foundation gave Waksman about half of the roy­al­ties it received from Merck. When it became clear that this was a lot of mon­ey, Waksman reduced his share to one-fifth.

In 1950, Waksman’s share was reduced to 10% (why, we will say lat­er), but since this was still a con­sid­er­able amount, he ordered that half of it be used to estab­lish the Microbiology Fund.

Dispute over priority

In addi­tion to mon­ey, Waksman also received recog­ni­tion as the “dis­cov­er­er” of strep­to­mycin. Moreover, he was the sole dis­cov­er­er. The afore­men­tioned arti­cle in Time about Selman Waksman states that it was he who “dis­cov­ered the won­der drug strep­to­mycin in 1943” (See Note 4). Only Waksman and no one else. On November 7, 1949, Time appeared with a pho­to of Waksman on the cov­er. Waksman received awards, hon­ours, and recog­ni­tion from many, many people.

But in March 1950, Albert Schatz sued Waksman and the Rutgers Foundation. The suit argued that Waksman was not the sole dis­cov­er­er of strep­to­mycin. The plain­tiff demand­ed an account­ing of pay­ments received from licens­es grant­ed by Waksman and the Rutgers Foundation to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies. Schatz also demand­ed a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the roy­al­ties he had received up to that point.

Schatz con­sid­ered him­self a co-dis­cov­er­er of the drug because he was the one who did the main work in the lab­o­ra­to­ry to iso­late it, and because his name was list­ed first in the orig­i­nal paper on the dis­cov­ery of the antibi­ot­ic (see Note 7) and sec­ond in the patent.

In addi­tion, his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, which he defend­ed in 1945, was devot­ed to streptomycin.

A rather lengthy process fol­lowed, and in December 1950 the case was set­tled ami­ca­bly. The pres­i­dent of Rutgers issued a state­ment in which all par­ties acknowl­edged that Schatz was the co-dis­cov­er­er of strep­to­mycin. Under the agree­ment, Schatz was to receive 3% of the roy­al­ties paid to the Rutgers Foundation. At the same time, Waksman was enti­tled to 10%, and anoth­er 7% was divid­ed among all those involved in the work that led to the devel­op­ment of strep­to­mycin. Although Waksman agreed to the set­tle­ment, he always regard­ed 1950 as the “dark­est” year of his life (285). He wrote that he was at the height of his fame and recog­ni­tion in 1950, but he was depressed that his stu­dent, in whom he had invest­ed so much effort and who promised to become a true star of micro­bi­ol­o­gy, treat­ed him so cruelly.

The right of Waksman to be called the cre­ator of strep­to­mycin was not ques­tioned by any­one. But the right of Albert Schatz to be called a co-cre­ator should prob­a­bly be acknowl­edged as well. At least this is the con­clu­sion reached by the mod­ern researcher Milton Wainwright in his work9.

Nobel Prize

Streptomycin, of course, was a suc­cess of the screen­ing pro­to­cols devel­oped by Waksman. Although we can’t for­get the very chick­en that pecked Streptomyces griseus “out of the earth”. This is pre­cise­ly the “chance, god is the inven­tor,” with­out which there are no great discoveries.

Other antibi­otics were also found, in par­tic­u­lar neomycin, iso­lat­ed by Hubert Lechehevalier, which is still used today as an antibac­te­r­i­al agent10.

But it was strep­to­mycin that brought fame and for­tune to Waksman and his lab. According to the Rutgers Foundation report, Waksman received $170,000 (after tax­es) in roy­al­ties, which, adjust­ed for infla­tion, would be about ten times as much today. But Waksman donat­ed most of his roy­al­ties to the Rutgers Foundation to estab­lish the Microbiology Institute. The Institute offi­cial­ly opened in 1954, and Waksman served as its direc­tor for its first four years.

In 1952, Waksman was award­ed the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his dis­cov­ery of strep­to­mycin, the first antibi­ot­ic effec­tive against tuber­cu­lo­sis”. In his speech at the Nobel Dinner, Waksman said, “With the removal of the dan­ger lurk­ing in infec­tious dis­eases and epi­demics, soci­ety can face a bet­ter future, can pre­pare for a time when oth­er dis­eases not now sub­ject to ther­a­py will be brought under con­trol. Let us hope that in con­tribut­ing the antibi­otics, the microbes will have done their part to make the world a bet­ter place to live in.”

Streptomycin was a major break­through, but mankind has not defeat­ed tuber­cu­lo­sis even 70 years lat­er. And it will obvi­ous­ly not suc­ceed in the com­ing years either.

Waksman retired in 1958. He lec­tured and trav­eled exten­sive­ly. He became a true patri­arch of micro­bi­ol­o­gy. A liv­ing leg­end. A bene­fac­tor of mankind.

He wrote a biog­ra­phy of the dis­cov­er­er of cholera and plague vac­cines, Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine. (We plan to cov­er this out­stand­ing and unfor­tu­nate­ly almost for­got­ten sci­en­tist in a series of our essays).

Selman Waksman was sur­round­ed by hon­or and world fame. His moth­er would be pleased. He died in 1973 at the age of 85. He is buried in Wood Hole, Massachusetts. On his grave is inscribed in English and Hebrew a phrase from the prophet Isaiah, chap­ter 45, verse 8: “The earth will open and bring forth salvation”.


1 All quo­ta­tions from Selman Waksman, My Life with the Microbes, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), are from this edi­tion in the text, with page num­bers in paren­the­ses. The book is avail­able online.
2 “An antibi­ot­ic is a chem­i­cal sub­stance pro­duced by microor­gan­isms that has the abil­i­ty to inhib­it the growth and even kill bac­te­ria and oth­er microor­gan­isms.” What is an antibi­ot­ic or an antibi­ot­ic sub­stance? Selman A. Waksman. mycol­o­gy. Vol. 39, no. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1947), pp. 565-569, p. 568.

3 Waksman S.A.: The Conquest of Tuberculosis. Berkeley, Calif.; University of California Press, 1964, p 117 (reprint­ed in Ann Internal Med 79:646, 1973). Cited in: Selman A. Waksman, PhD (1888-1973): Pioneer in Development of Antibiotics and Nobel Laureate. B. Lee Ligon-Borden, PhD

4 Medicine: Man of the Soil. time. Monday, Apr. 04, 1949

5 Selman Waksman and H. Boyd Woodruff, “Actinomyces Antibioticus, a New Soil Organism Antagonistic to Pathogenic and Non-Pathogenic Bacteria,”. Journal of Bacteriology, 42 (1941): 231-249.

6 Gram-pos­i­tive and gram-neg­a­tive bac­te­ria stain dif­fer­ent­ly for Gram, and this allows them to be clas­si­fied. Their main dif­fer­ence is that gram-pos­i­tive bac­te­ria have one thick mem­brane, while gram-neg­a­tive bac­te­ria have two thin ones. Penicillin is effec­tive in gram-pos­i­tive bac­te­ria but not in gram-neg­a­tive bacteria.

7 Albert Schatz, Elizabeth Bugie, and Selman Waksman, “Streptomycin: A Substance Exhibiting Antibiotic Activity Against Gram-Positive and Gram-Negative Bacteria.” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental and Biological Medicine, 55 (1944): 66-69.

8 Waksman’s cor­re­spon­dence with Feldman and Hinshaw has not been pub­lished. It is archived at the Waksman Papers, Rutgers University. Here we cite let­ters from Selman Waksman and Antibiotics. National Historic Chemical Landmark. Dedicated May 24, 2005, at Rutgers The State University of New Jersey.

9 Streptomycin: dis­cov­ery and resul­tant con­tro­ver­sy. Milton Wainwright. Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, University of Sheffield England. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 13, no. 1 (1991), pp. 97-124, p. 124.

10 Selman Waksman and Hubert Lecehevalier. Neomycin, A New Antibiotic Active against Streptomycin Resistant Bacteria, includ­ing Tuberculosis Organisms, Science, 109 (March 25, 1949): 305-307.


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