Selman Abraham Waksman

Selman Waksman at work in the laboratory, 1953. World Telegram & Sun photo by Roger Higgins. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Selman Waksman at work in the laboratory, 1953. World Telegram & Sun photo by Roger Higgins. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Selman Abraham Waksman (1888–1973) chose to title his 1954 autobiography My Life with the Microbes, an apt characterization of the professional life of this biochemist and microbiologist. Waksman, assisted by his many students, mined pharmaceuticals from the soil using methods that have become classic. He applied his in-depth knowledge of all classes of soil microbes—bacteria, fungi, and especially actinomycetes (filamentous bacteria)—to the fight against disease-causing microbes in humans.

Born in a small Jewish village in the Ukraine, Waksman was brought up in a family dominated by women—his grandmother, his mother, and seven aunts. His father fled this matriarchy, spending most of his time in the village prayer house, but he gave his son a good religious upbringing. Waksman progressed from local religious schools to private tutors in secular subjects and ultimately to state secondary schools. His early life was shaped in part by the death of his little sister from diphtheria, at a time when the antitoxin was well known but not available in their part of the world. A socially responsible person even at an early age, Waksman and his friends organized a school for poor boys and later a health service to care for the sick. Life in Jewish villages became precarious as a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the accompanying Revolution of 1905, during which Jews were blamed for all misfortunes. In response to the pogroms carried out by the infamous Cossacks, Waksman, while still a teenager, helped to organize a youth self-protection league.

Waksman passed his school’s final examinations soon after his mother died, and he then left for the United States, arriving in Philadelphia in 1910. He went to stay with a cousin who was farming in Metuchen, New Jersey. From 1911 to 1915 he attended nearby Rutgers College, majoring in agricultural science. Turned down as a candidate for graduate study at the University of Illinois, he stayed on at Rutgers for a master’s degree. His research, carried out at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station on the Rutgers campus, encompassed the topics that fascinated him for his lifetime: soil bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi. In 1916 Waksman became a U.S. citizen and married Deborah Mitnick, a young woman from the same village in Ukraine as he and with whom he would eventually have one son. He obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry in two years from the University of California at Berkeley and returned to Rutgers in 1918 as a lecturer in soil microbiology.

To sustain himself financially through his lengthy education and in his early professional life, he held many jobs, some simultaneously. While in California, he was responsible for the irrigation system of a ranch near Sacramento, and he also worked for Cutter Laboratories, a manufacturer of antitoxins, vaccines, and serums. During his first two years as a lecturer at Rutgers he worked at Takamine Laboratories in New Jersey. Later, as Waksman rose through the academic ranks, he maintained consultative relationships with many industrial concerns that produced enzymes, vitamins, and other products from fungal and bacterial sources. Another of his interests was the study of marine microbes, which he pursued every summer from 1931 onward at the Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

In 1939 Waksman, already the author of the standard text in the field, Principles of Soil Microbiology (1927), began the work that would bring him the most fame. Waksman was interested in the antagonistic fight for existence among soil microbes, and he started an extensive program of study aimed at determining the nature of the substances by which various microbes destroyed each other. With the help of some 50 graduate students and visiting scholars over a number of decades, he screened thousands of soil microbes. (This grand scale of research quickly became the world standard.) As many soils as possible were sampled, and from these Waksman and his students selected a variety of actinomycetes and other microbes to isolate and test for their activity against bacteria that cause disease in humans. The most promising were grown on various liquid media to determine which had the capacity to release freely their active (disease-fighting) substances. Finally, attempts were made to isolate the active substances by using, among other means, various solvents, mechanical means, and temperature gradients.

In 1939 representatives from Merck and Company approached Waksman about setting up a cooperative arrangement to undertake the follow-up research and development necessary to convert laboratory discoveries into pharmaceutical products. Specifically, Merck agreed to undertake research to determine the chemical structure of likely substances, to test for their toxicity and pharmaceutical activity in laboratory animals, and to design and carry out the scaling up of their production, so that clinical trials in animal and human subjects could be done. Merck would also seek patents on behalf of Waksman and his named assistants. If the company should decide to manufacture a substance, then it would be the sole producer, and it would pay Rutgers University a percentage of royalties on the sales of bulk product.

In short order Waksman’s group isolated antibacterial agents from various soil actinomycetes, but only streptomycin, isolated in 1943 by his student Albert Schatz, proved safe for use on human subjects. Much later the laboratory’s first discovery, actinomycin, came to be used as a means of killing cancer cells. In the midst of these early discoveries Waksman was asked by the editor of a scientific journal to give a name to these and other antimicrobial substances. He chose the term antibiotics, which was based on antibiosis, a word created in the 19th century to express the injurious effect of one organism on another. During his lifetime he and members of his laboratory discovered many more antibiotics, including two more that reached the market.

As an antibiotic, streptomycin succeeded beyond Waksman’s wildest dreams. Its most important triumph was over many forms of tuberculosis. Until the mid-20th century tuberculosis was a dreaded killer. It affected all age groups but had particularly devastating effects on young adults. Clinicians at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, established streptomycin’s curative activity in tuberculosis in guinea pigs, and clinical trials on humans began soon thereafter.

When it became obvious that streptomycin would be a lifesaver, Waksman sought release from the exclusivity clause of the original 1939 agreement, to which Merck readily agreed. The patent was transferred to Rutgers University and licensed to seven pharmaceutical companies, including Merck. In the midst of this restructuring, a heated dispute broke out between Albert Schatz and his former mentor, resulting in a court judgment that Schatz, who had been named in the patent, was indeed the codiscoverer of streptomycin. The financial settlement, reflecting Waksman’s own views of scientific credit, gave 10 percent to all the Rutgers scientists, students, and technicians who played a role in the search for antibiotics (including Schatz, who got 3 of that 10 percent), 10 percent to Waksman, and 80 percent to the Rutgers Research and Endowment Foundation. At Waksman’s request the foundation created the Institute of Microbiology in 1951, and he contributed most of his portion to the support of scientific research. Among many other honors recognizing his research on antibiotics, Waksman (alone) was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

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