Selman Waksman and his research teams discovered antibiotics made by soil-dwelling bacteria – the word antibiotic was coined by Waksman.
One of the antibiotics made by these bacteria was streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis. Until Waksman’s breakthrough in 1944, tuberculosis was killing over a hundred thousand people a year in America. (Tuberculosis has been responsible for more deaths than any other pathogen in human history.)
Waksman, a pioneer in the field of soil microbiology, was the sole recipient of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Selman Abraham Waksman was born on July 22, 1888 in Nova Pryluka, a small, remote town in the Russian Empire. Today it is in Ukraine.
Selman’s mother was Fradia London, a textile merchant. His father was Jacob Waksman, a former soldier who inherited property from his father and became a landlord.
The family lived in the wealthier part of town. Selman was their only child – his younger sister died in infancy.
Selman’s family was Jewish, and much of his early education both at home and in small classes with private tutors was of a religious nature – his mother was passionate about her faith, passing her passion to her son. As a child, he learned the entire Bible in Hebrew by heart.
Selman also enjoyed reading Jules Verne’s science fiction, and as he grew older he began enjoying the works of Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. He found himself growing less interested in religion.
In 1907, age 19, he tried to pass the exams for the Matriculation Diploma – the high school qualification for university entrance – but failed. Among the reasons for this were:
- Government policy made it difficult for Jewish students to receive an official education.
- His parents were more interested in his religious education than secular education.
- His small hometown was a long way from the city grammar schools which trained pupils to pass the Matriculation Diploma, so he relied on private tutors rather than qualified teachers.
- Although he knew a lot, his knowledge was poorly organized.
- When he took the Matriculation Diploma exams, he was the victim of a Geography examiner, who having found Salman could not name the river flowing through Berlin, refused to ask him further questions and gave him a mark close to zero. A failure in one subject meant a failure in the diploma.
In 1909, two major events occurred in Selman Waksman’s life:
- In spring, age 21, he passed his first set of diploma exams.
- In summer, his beloved mother died.
The following year, he passed the final exams and obtained his Matriculation Diploma, but immediately encountered a new problem. The Russian government placed severe quotas on the number of Jews allowed into universities, so only a small number of elite Jewish students were admitted each year. Waksman’s exam marks were not elite marks.
He decided to leave for the USA to join his cousins there. His ship landed in Philadelphia on November 2, 1910.
Death of a Small Town and its People
31 years after he left it forever, Waksman’s hometown of Nova Pryluka was destroyed during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War 2. The town’s Jewish residents were massacred.
America and Rutgers College
Waksman’s cousins had a small farm on the outskirts of Metuchin, New Jersey.
Just a few miles from the farm was the town of New Brunswick, home of Rutgers College – now Rutgers University. Waksman visited the college and met Dr. Jacob Lipman, another Russian immigrant, soon to be Dean of the College of Agriculture. Waksman had already been accepted by Columbia University’s Medical School, but Lipman persuaded him switch to Rutgers.
Waksman spent the next few months working on his cousin’s farm, learning about agricultural practices. In the fall of 1911, age 23, he became a freshman at Rutgers with a New Jersey State Scholarship. The other freshmen, younger than Waksman, sometimes joked about his clumsy spoken English.
He completed the work he needed for a bachelor’s degree in three years. Lipman arranged for him to spend his final year working with graduate students counting different groups of microorganisms present in soil.
Waksman had problems with one of the first cultures he grew from soil – he could not decide if the organisms were bacteria or fungi. Eventually, he identified the organisms as actinomycetes, members of the bacterial order Actinomycetales.
The Actinomycetales would become one of his lifelong research interests, especially Actinomyces griseus, later renamed Streptomyces griseus by Waksman. This organism produces streptomycin, the antibiotic that made Waksman a household name in the middle of the twentieth century.
In June 1915, Waksman received his Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Soil Bacteriology. At age 27, he became one of Lipman’s research assistants at Rutgers, increasingly ignoring the work Lipman assigned him in favor of studying Actinomycetales.
Waksman was awarded his master’s degree in 1916. Two years of researching Actinomycetales at the University of California, Berkeley brought him a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1918, after which he returned to Rutgers to join the faculty.
The Discovery of Streptomycin
In 1923, Waksman and his student Robert Starkey discovered that actinomycetes colonies growing in soil killed many common soil bacteria.
Five years later, Alexander Fleming observed fungi of the Penicillium genus also producing a bacteria-killing liquid.
1927: published his 897-page Principles of Soil Microbiology; it became the standard textbook in the field.
1937: returned to researching the effectiveness of actinomycetes as killers of bacteria. Helped by two students, he made good progress.
1939: expanded his research team to eight after reading of Rene Dubos’s discovery of a soil microorganism that yielded an antibacterial substance. Waksman knew Dubos well. In 1924, he had given the young Frenchman his first job in America. Waksman’s expanded team discovered four bacteria-killing chemicals: actinomycin, clavacin, fumigacin, and streptothricin – sadly, all were toxic to animals.
1941: coined the word ‘antibiotic’ to describe antibacterial drugs.
1943: his newest Ph.D. student, Albert Schatz discovered that a strain of Streptomyces griseus from the soil around Rutgers Agricultural School produced an antibiotic. Waksman and Schatz called the new antibiotic streptomycin.
The Mayo Clinic tested streptomycin in animals and reported it was not toxic. Waksman asked the clinic’s researchers to test streptomycin on tuberculosis-infected guinea pigs – it cured them. The clinic asked Waksman for more streptomycin to test on humans. Schatz produced it. The Mayo clinic’s researchers found streptomycin could indeed cure humans suffering from tuberculosis.
It was a momentous discovery: until then, tuberculosis had been an incurable disease, claiming the lives of young and old alike, including the early deaths of many brilliant scientists and mathematicians such as Niels Henrik Abel, age 26; Gotthold Eisenstein, age 29; William Clifford, age 33; Curt Schimmelbusch, age 34; Bernhard Riemann, age 39; Augustin Fresnel, age 39; and Blaise Pascal, age 39.
The only way of combating tuberculosis was good hygiene and avoidance. Government campaigns encouraged people to minimize the risk of catching TB. These campaigns, combined with increasing affluence and better nutrition in the population, were actually highly successful in reducing the incidence of the disease.
Waksman was a consultant for the drug company Merck and Co. Together they got FDA approval for streptomycin to treat tuberculosis.
1944: Merck ran large scale clinical trials establishing streptomycin was effective against a number of penicillin-resistant diseases, including TB, cholera, bubonic plague, and typhoid fever. Merck built a factory in Virginia to produce streptomycin.
1952: Waksman was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for:
“ingenious, systematic and successful studies of the soil microbes that led to the discovery of streptomycin.”
The story does not end there, however.
First, there was Waksman’s student Albert Schatz, who felt that Waksman took too much credit for streptomycin’s discovery.
As if the Schatz trouble was not enough, there was the failure of streptomycin to fulfill its initial promise as a tuberculosis-slaying wonder drug.
Waksman received many awards for his work, including:
1948: Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
1948: Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.
1950: French Legion of Honor.
1950: Leeuwenhoek Medal – awarded once every decade for the greatest contribution to microbiology.
1952: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Since 1968, every two years, the National Academy of Sciences has awarded the Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology for “excellence in the field of microbiology.”
In 1951, using royalties from the discovery of streptomycin, Waksman founded the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology and Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University.
Family and The End
In 1916, Waksman became a naturalized American citizen. In August of the same year, age 28, he married Deborah Mitnik, known affectionately as Bobili. He had known Bobili in Russia and she emigrated to America before him. She was a talented singer and artist. The couple had a son, Byron Halsted Waksman, who became a professor of immunology at Yale’s Medical School.
Waksman retired from his laboratory at age 70 in 1958. He continued lecturing and writing.
Selman Waksman died, age 85, on August 16, 1973 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Survived by his wife, son, and grandchildren, he was buried in Crowell Cemetery, Woods Hole.
Author of this page: The Doc
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"Selman Waksman." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 17 May. 2018. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/selman-waksman/>.
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Waksman SA, Starkey RL.
Partial sterilization of soil, microbiological activities and soil fertility
Soil Sci. Vol 16, 99. 343–358, 1923.
Selman A. Waksman
My Life With The Microbes
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954
H. Boyd Woodruff
Selman A. Waksman, Winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine
Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Vol. 80, No. 1, pp. 2–8, January 2014
Image of Streptomyces griseus courtesy of S. Amano, S. Miyadoh & T. Shomura of the Actinomycetes Society of Japan under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.