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Waksman, Selman Abraham


(b. Novaya Priluka, Russia, 22 July 1888; d. Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 16 August 1973)

microbiology soil science, pharmacology.

The Early Years. Selman Abraham Waksman, winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, spent his childhood and early youth in Novaya Priluka, in the Kiev region of the Ukraine. Novaya Priluka was a small Jewish town resembling many others in the so-called pale of settlement, located twenty miles from Vinnitsa (population four thousand) and two hundred miles from Kiev. It was surrounded by Ukrainian peasant hamlets in a black soil (chernozem) steppe devoted to the cultivation of wheat, rye, barley, and oats. The area was owned by Polish and Russian landlords (pomiestchiki) and Russians served as teachers, inspectors, and police (the cossacks). The town was annihilated during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World War II.

Waksman was brought up in a matriarchate dominated by his grandmother, Eva London; his mother. Fradia; and seven aunts. His father, Jacob, a weaver of fiber chair coverings, spent time in the prayer house and taught him about the Bible and the Talmud. In what came as a severe shock to the impressionable youngster, his little sister, Miriam, died of diphtheria when he was nine years old, well after the discovery of diphtheria antitoxin. He was schooled in a traditional Hebrew heder until age nine, had private tutors from that age on, and became bar mitzvah at thirteen. He then attended gymnasium (a government Latin school) in Zhitomir, the capital of Volhynia and later in Odessa, finally passing the examinations in 1910.

Waksman’s qualities as a teacher and socially responsible individual were expressed early. With three like-minded youngsters between the ages of twelve and sixteen, he organized a school for underprivileged children, teaching Hebrew and Russian grammar, writing, arithmetic, and history. He also formed a group of boys to care for the sick. Later Waksman belonged to chess, literary, and other clubs. Finally, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the accompanying 1905 Revolution, when the police and cossacks were responsible for repeated pogroms and many towns were pillaged, he helped organize a Jewish youth defense group and learned the use of weapons.

Waksman left Russia after his mother’s death in 1909 and his passing of the final gymnasium examinations. The choices that the young emigrant was considering included Switzerland, the United States, and South America. He chose the United States, where he had relatives. Accompanied by Peisi Mitnik, the most important companion of his youth, he landed in Philadelphia on 2 November 1910 and went to live in Metuchen, New Jersey, on a farm owned by a cousin, Mendel Cornblatt, originally a bookbinder, from whom he learned scientific farming (Waksman, 1954).

Waksman attended Rutgers College from 1911 to 1915, receiving a B.S. in 1915 and an M.S. in 1916. The crucial decision to enter an agricultural rather than a medical course was guided by Dr. Jacob G. Lipman, a bacteriologist who was dean of the College of Agriculture and himself an immigrant from Russia (Waksman, 1966). Courses in bacteriology with Lipman and summer projects with Dr. Byron David Halsted, a plant nutritionist and geneticist, helped to define Waksman’s future career. He carried out his master’s project at the New Jersery Agricultural Experiment Station, the institution where he spent essentially his entire scientific life, studying soil fungi and especially soil actinomycetes, organisms almost entirely neglected by others that became a mainstay of his subsequent work. His first public presentation, with R. E. Curtis, another graduate student, was “Bacteria, Actinomycetes, and Fungi of the Soil”, to the Society of American Bacteriologists at Urbana, Illinois, in December 1915.

Waksman obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry in two years, working with T. Brailsford Robertson at the University of California at Berkeley, and returned to Rutgers as a lecturer in soil microbiology in 1918.

Throughout his college and graduate studies, Waksman supported himself by scholarships and by a series of jobs: as a Sunday caretaker and night watchman, as a tutor of English and various scientific subjects, later as head of the biochemistry department at the Cutter Laboratories, and even by summer work on a ranch near Sacramento. During his first two years as an instructor at Rutgers, he worked one day a week at the experiment station and five days a week at the Takamine Laboratory in Clifton, New Jersey (producing fungal diastatic and proteolytic enzymes and running toxicity tests on Salvarsan).

Waksman married his childhood sweetheart, Bertha Deborah Mitnik (Bobili), on 4 August 1916. She went with him to California, and they returned to live in New York for two years before settling permanently in New Brunswick, New Jersey, close to Rutgers, in 1921. Their only child, Byron Halsted, was born 15 September 1919. Bobili accompanied her increasingly famous husband on his many trips. Byron attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and later pursued an academic career as a research immunologist and teacher.

Humus, Enzymes, and Soil Microbiology. The first phase of Waksman’s research as a full-fledged university scientist dealt with the extension of his work on actinomycetes and with organisms involved in sulfur oxidation. He regarded the isolation of Thiobacillus thiooxidans (Waksman and Joffe, 1922) during that period as his most important scientific discovery before the antibiotics.

Waksman’s early work on actinomycetes and sulfur transformations was carried out with Jacob S. Joffe and later continued with Robert L. Starkey, who became a lifelong associate and friend, and with an ever-changing group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Waksman and his colleagues developed standardized methods of evaluating microbial populations in soil samples and initiated studies of the decomposition of organic residues in soils and composts to form humus. The study of the nature, distribution, and properties of the microorganisms, and their effects on the structure and the physical and chemical properties of the soils they inhabit, dominated research in his laboratory for the next twenty years.

During this period Waksman developed a world-wide network of friends, prominent among them Sergei N. Winogradsky of the Pasteur Institute; Sir John Russell and Marjorie Stephenson of the Rothamsted Experiment Station, from whom he received his first exchange student in 1924; and Martinus Willem Beijerinck of Holland. He also began a consultative relationship with many industrial concerns that produced enzymes, vitamins, and other products from fungal and bacterial sources. This led to cooperative interactions that contributed significantly to Waksman’s antibiotic work after 1940. His first book, Enzymes, dates from work done during this early period (Waksman and Davison, 1926).

In 1924 Waksman and his family made a prolonged trip to Europe, with attendance at the International Conference on Soil Science in Rome and a grand tour of microbiological and soil laboratories in many countries, as well as his first return visit to Russia, now the Soviet Union. On his return home, he wrote a comprehensive review, “Soil Microbiology in 1924”, a precursor of his famous book Principles of Soil Microbiology (1927).

Scientific research in the Waksman laboratory continued after 1924 at an accelerated pace, as his group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows grew larger and became more cosmopolitan. Waksman now devoted himself more and more to the organizational aspects of science, as represented by editorial and society activities and a variety of national and international meetings. He made trips to Europe in 1929, 1930, 1933, 1935, and 1938 and to the Holy Land in 1938, and carried out systematic studies of peat bogs and composts throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Among the results of this activity were The Soil and the Microbe (1931), Humus (1936), and several other books. He also became an adviser on the commercial development of composts, particularly for mushroom growers.

In 1931 Waksman developed a laboratory for the study of marine microbiology at the newly constructed Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (WHOI), where he and some of his students worked each summer over the next twelve years, Waksman became a WHOI trustee in 1945. In the last several years of Waksman’s summer work there, in collaboration with the United States Navy, the laboratory studied the fouling of ship bottoms. This project, a contribution to the war effort, was terminated after World War II. Other projects sought to develop means of protecting materials against tropical deterioration owing to microbial action and to find substitutes for agar for use in microbiology laboratories. Waksman’s last and most important prewar contribution to have a profound and lasting influence on human affairs was the development of simplified methods for obtaining antibiotics and the discovery of streptomycin (Waksman, 1975).

The Antibiotics. In 1939 Waksman and his colleagues undertook a systematic effort to identify soil organisms producing soluble substances that might be useful in the control of infectious disease. In 1941 he proposed to restrict the meaning of the word “antibiotics” to microbial products with antimicrobial properties. Together with the sulfonamide drugs, antibiotics have effectively eliminated the threat of fatal bacterial infections from the developed world.

The reasons that led Waksman to initiate this program included the discovery of tyrothricin by his former student René Dubos in 1939; his own profound knowledge of all classes of soil microbes and the biochemical and manipulative skills acquired over the previous quarter century; his great familiarity with the actinomycetes, the microorganisms that proved to be the producers of most antibiotics later isolated; and the threat of World War II.

Working with few resources, guiding graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, Waksman developed and applied simple screening techniques to a variety of samples of soil and other natural materials. Within a decade ten antibiotics were isolated and characterized, three of them with important clinical applications: actinomycin (Waksman and Woodruff, 1940); streptomycin (Schatz, Bugie, and Waksman, 1944); and neomycin (Waksman and Lechevalier, 1949), Eighteen antibiotics were discovered under his general direction (Lechevalier, 1980).

Merck and Company, located in Rahway, New Jersey, supported Waksman’s laboratory in its study of microbial antagonisms; in exchange it had the right to patent discoveries in this field coming from his laboratory. It was agreed that Merck would pay Rutgers University 2.5 percent royalties on the sales of bulk products that might be derived from such inventions. When it became obvious that streptomycin was a most important product, Merck generously agreed to transfer its rights to Rutgers University, which licensed a number of companies to manufacture the antibiotic. By 1946 two investigators at the Mayo Clinic, H. Corwin Hinshaw and William H. Feldman, established its curative activity in guinea pig tuberculosis (Hinshaw, 1954). The first clinical trials in human tuberculosis began in 1945. Waksman, as a nonmedical scientist, was overwhelmed by the medical implications of his discovery, particularlyin tuberculous meningitis of children (Waksman, 1965; Comroe, 1978).

The Postwar Period . At the end of World War II, Waksman traveled to the Soviet Union with the double purpose of trying to establish effective mechanisms of scientific exchange and of helping establish methods of producing antibiotics. There were numerous later trips and meetings with well-wishers of every description, from Pope Pius XI and Emperor Hirohito of Japan to Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and General Franco of Spain. The crowning event among all these was his trip to Sweden in 1952 to receive the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for the discovery of streptomycin.

Another accomplishment of the postwar period was, following the wishes of Waksman, the assignment in 1951 by the Rutgers Research Educational Foundation of most of the royalties received from the sale of streptomycin and neomycin to the creation and support of the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. This institute provided research facilities for over 100 scientists and technicians, and Waksman became its first director. Today it is known as the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, and it remains a thriving establishment (Lechevalier, 1982). Part of the royalty funds were used in setting up the Foundation for Microbiology, which since its inception in 1951 has supported courses, lectureships, exchange programs, minority fellowships, and prizes in microbiologic and related research areas. In France and Japan similar Waksman Foundations, also funded from industrial royalties, began to support research in microbiology.

Waksman as a Scientist . While research on antibiotics, started in 1939, became the dominant theme of Waksman’s later scientific career and the source of his fame for the world at large, his earlier work as a soil microbiologist had made him a towering figure among scientists well before that time. The successive phases of his research culminated in a series of classic volumes or papers on enzymes, humus, peats, and soil microorganisms, and finally on the antibiotics, streptomycin and neomycin in particular (Waksman, 1945). His scholarship as a scientist and teacher was embodied in a massive compendium, the second edition of his Principles of Soil Microbiology, published in 1932. This book, refused by many publishers who could not believe that it had a market, became a best-seller and dominated the field for several decades. He later wrote biographies of two of his scientific heroes: Winogradsky, a lifelong friend he regarded as the true founder of soil microbiology (Waksman, 1953), and W. M. W. Haffkine, a Jewish scientist whose contributions some decades earlier were turned into tragedy by bigotry and persecution (Waksman, 1964).

Academic recognition came to Waksman first with his promotion to associate professor in 1925 and to professor in 1929. Professional recognition also came in other forms. In 1927 he was made responsible for organizing the program of the first International Congress of Soil Science in Washington (ten days followed by a one-month excursion throughout the United States and Canada), and he helped establish the Commission on Soil Microbiology, of which he soon became president. Additional congresses took place in Leningrad and Moscow (1930) and Great Britain (1935), and he played a central role in each, as he did in the International Congress of Microbiology at New York (1939). Waksman shortly afterward became chairman of the War Committee on Bacteriology, under the aegis of the Society of American Bacteriologists (now the American Society for Microbiology). He was elected president of this society in 1941.

Only one prize came Waksman’s way in the early years: the Nitrate of Soda Nitrogen Research Award in 1929. However, after 1940 awards and honors were showered on him, including honorary degrees ranging from law to medicine, from some twenty universities throughout the world; honorary memberships in a variety of organizations; and medals of scientific societies all over the world, culminating with the Nobel Prize and the Star of the Rising Sun, bestowed on him by the emperor of Japan. Other notable honors included membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; the Legion of Honor (Commander) of France; the Order of the Southern Cross (Commendatore) of Brazil; the Grand Cross of Public Health of Spain; corresponding membership (later foreign associate) of the French Academy of Sciences; the Lasker Award; the Amory Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and the Trudeau Medal of the (U.S.) National Tuberculosis Association (Woodruff, 1968).

Waksman was an extraordinary scholar and bibliophile. Not only was he author or coauthor of over 400 scientific papers and various obituaries and reviews, as well as twenty-eight books, but he was also an inveterate collector of books. He became a specialist in Judaica, in books of autobiography and personal philosophy by leading scientists, and in political and other forms of caricature over the last two centuries. After his death these collections became major holdings at Brandeis University, the Burndy Science Library, and the Sterling Library of Yale University, respectively. In his professional life Waksman played many roles. He was an experimental scientist, a theoretician, an applied scientist, a popularizer, a scholar, and a teacher.

In his autobiography, My Life with the Microbes (1954), Waksman pays tribute to the microorganisms that remained his consuming passion for six decades, literally until the day of his death. He spoke often of the “teeming earth,” with its soil organisms growing in root nodules and in dead residues to form humus. He noted the beneficent role of microorganisms in the production of cheese, wine, vinegar, enzymes, vitamins, and a variety of industrial products—as well as their nefarious role in destroying clothing, contaminating water and foods, and infecting man, other animals, and plants. Waksman contrasted the suffering during mass migrations, such as the Irish potato famine, resulting from the action of microbes, with the welfare associated with the positive “chemical warfare” made possible by the antibiotics. He studied soils, manure piles, and the sea, and he investigated all the forms of microbial life in these environments: bacteria, actinomycetes, molds (fungi), and even protozoa, both as isolated pure cultures and in the mixed populations occurring naturally. Perhaps his most famous remark, to a student, was “Young man, there is romance even in a manure pile!”

Waksman manufactured a quasi-biblical quotation, “Out of the earth shall come thy salvation,” that scholars have identified as an abbreviated form of “The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise shall not abhor them” (Apocrypha). His idiosyncratic version of the quotation appears on the simple stone that marks his grave in a churchyard in Woods Hole where many of his scientific peers are buried.


I. Original Works. “Thiobacillus thiooxidans, a New Sulfur-Oxidizing Organism Isolated from the Soil,” in Journal of Bacteriology, 7 (1922), 239–256, with J. S. Joffe; Enzymes: Properties, Distribution, Methods and Applications (Baltimore, 1926), with W. C. Davison; Principles of Soil Microbiology (Baltimore, 1927; 2nd ed., 1932); The Soil and the Microbe (New York, 1931), with R. L. Starkey; Humus: Origin, Chemical Composition and Importance in Nature (Baltimore, 1936; 2nd ed., 1938; Russian trans., 1938); “Bacteriostatic and Bactericidal Substances Produced by a Soil Actinomyces,” in Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biological Medicine, 45 (1940), 609–614, with H. B. Woodruff; “Streptomycin, a Substance Exhibiting Antibiotic Activity Against Gram-Positive and Gram-Negative Bacteria,” ibid., 55 (1944), 66–69, with A. Schatz and E. Bugie; Microbial Antagonisms and Antibiotic Substances (New York, 1945); “Neomycin, a New Antibiotic Active Against Streptomycin-Resistant Bacteria, Including Tuberculosis Organisms,” in Science, 109 (1949), 305–307, with H. A. Lechevalier; Sergei Nikolaevitch Winogradsky: The Story of a Great Bacteriologist (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953); My Life with the Microbes (New York, 1954); The Brilliant and Tragic Life of Waldemar Haffkine (New Brunswick, N.J., 1964); The Conquest of Tuberculosis (Berkeley, Calif., 1965); Jacob G. Lipman, Agricultural Scientist and Humanitarian (New Brunswick, N.J., 1966); and TheAntibiotic Era: A History of Antibiotics and of Their Role in the Conquest of Infectious Diseases. . . (Tokyo, 1975).

II. Secondary Literature. V. Bryson, “Selman A. Waksman (1888–1973),” in ASM News, 40 (1974), 651–658; J. H. J. Comroe, “Pay Dirt: The Story of Streptomycin,” in American Review of Respiratory Disease, 117 (1978), 773–781, 957–968; H. C. Hinshaw, “Historical Notes on Earliest Use of Streptomycin in Clinical Tuberculosis,” in American Review of Tuberculosis, 70 (1954), 9–14; Hubert A. Lechevalier, “The Search for Antibiotics at Rutgers University,” in John Parascandola, ed., The History of Antibiotics: A Symposium (Madison, Wis., 1980), and The Development of Applied Microbiology at Rutgers Waksman Institute of Microbiology (New Brunswick, N.J., 1982); A. Sakula, “Selman Waksman (1888–1973). Discoverer of Streptomycin: A Centenary Review,” in British Journal of Diseases of the Chest, 82 (1988), 23–31; “Selman Abraham Waksman,” in Nature, 246 (1973), 367; and H. B. Woodruff, Scientific Contributions of Selman A. Waksman (New Brunswick, N.J., 1968).

Byron H. Waksman

Hubert A. Lechevalier

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Waksman, Selman Abraham (1888-1973)

Waksman, Selman Abraham (1888-1973)

Russian-born American microbiologist

Selman Waksman discovered life-saving antibacterial compounds and his investigations spawned further studies for other disease-curing drugs. Waksman isolated streptomycin, the first chemical agent effective against tuberculosis . Prior to Waksman's discovery, tuberculosis was often a lifelong debilitating disease, and was fatal in some forms. Streptomycin effected a powerful and wide-ranging cure, and for this discovery, Waksman received the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. In pioneering the field of antibiotic research, Waksman had an inestimable impact on human health.

The only son of a Jewish furniture textile weaver, Selman Abraham Waksman was born in the tiny Russian village of Novaya Priluka on July 22, 1888. Life was hard in late-nineteenth-century Russia. Waksman's only sister died from diphtheria when he was nine. There were particular tribulations for members of a persecuted ethnic minority. As a teen during the Russian revolution, Waksman helped organize an armed Jewish youth defense group to counteract oppression. He also set up a school for underprivileged children and formed a group to care for the sick. These activities prefaced his later role as a standard-bearer for social responsibility.

Several factors led to Waksman's immigration to the United States. He had received his diploma from the Gymnasium in Odessa and was poised to attend university, but he doubtless recognized the very limited options he held as a Jew in Russia. At the same time, in 1910, his mother died, and cousins who had immigrated to New Jersey urged him to follow their lead. Waksman did so, and his move to a farm there, where he learned the basics of scientific farming from his cousin, likely had a pivotal influence on Waksman's later choice of field of study.

In 1911 Waksman enrolled in nearby Rutgers College (later University) of Agriculture, following the advice of fellow Russian immigrant Jacob Lipman, who led the college's bacteriology department. He worked with Lipman, developing a fascination with the bacteria of soil, and graduated with a B.S. in 1915. The next year he earned his M.S. degree. Around this time, he also became a naturalized United States citizen and changed the spelling of his first name from Zolman to Selman. Waksman married Bertha Deborah Mitnik, a childhood sweetheart and the sister of one of his childhood friends, in 1916. Deborah Mitnik had come to the United States in 1913, and in 1919 she bore their only child, Byron Halsted Waksman, who eventually went on to a distinguished career at Yale University as a pathology professor.

Waksman's intellect and industry enabled him to earn his Ph.D. in less than two years at the University of California, Berkeley. His 1918 dissertation focused on proteolytic enzymes (special proteins that break down proteins) in fungi . Throughout his schooling, Waksman supported himself through various scholarships and jobs. Among the latter were ranch work, caretaker, night watchman, and tutor of English and science.

Waksman's former advisor invited him to join Rutgers as a lecturer in soil bacteriology in 1918. He was to stay at Rutgers for his entire professional career. When Waksman took up the post, however, he found his pay too low to support his family. Thus, in his early years at Rutgers he also worked at the nearby Takamine Laboratory, where he produced enzymes and ran toxicity tests.

In the 1920s Waksman's work gained recognition in scientific circles. Others sought out his keen mind, and his prolific output earned him a well-deserved reputation. He wrote two major books during this decade. Enzymes: Properties, Distribution, Methods, and Applications, coauthored with Wilburt C. Davison, was published in 1926, and in 1927 his thousand-page Principles of Soil Microbiology appeared. This latter volume became a classic among soil bacteriologists. His laboratory produced more than just books. One of Waksman's students during this period was René Dubos , who would later discover the antibiotic gramicidin, the first chemotherapeutic agent effective against gram-positive bacteria (bacteria that hold dye in a stain test named for Danish bacteriologist Hans Gram). Waksman became an associate professor at Rutgers in the mid1920s and advanced to the rank of full professor in 1930.

During the 1930s Waksman systematically investigated the complex web of microbial life in soil, humus, and peat. He was recognized as a leader in the field of soil microbiology, and his work stimulated an ever-growing group of graduate students and postdoctoral assistants. He continued to publish widely, and he established many professional relationships with industrial firms that utilized products of microbes. These companies that produced enzymes, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and other products were later to prove valuable in Waksman's researches, mass-producing and distributing the products he developed. Among his other accomplishments during this period was the founding of the division of Marine Bacteriology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1931. For the next decade he spent summers there and eventually became a trustee, a post he filled until his death.

In 1939, Waksman was appointed chair of the U.S. War Committee on Bacteriology. He derived practical applications from his earlier studies on soil microorganisms , developing antifungal agents to protect soldiers and their equipment. He also worked with the Navy on the problem of bacteria that attacked ship hulls. Early that same year Dubos announced his finding of two antibacterial substances, tyrocidine, and gramicidin, derived from a soil bacterium (Bacillus brevis ). The latter compound, effective against gram-positive bacteria, proved too toxic for human use but did find widespread employment against various bacterial infections in veterinary medicine. The discovery of gramicidin also evidently inspired Waksman to dedicate himself to focus on the medicinal uses of antibacterial soil microbes. It was in this period that he began rigorously investigating the antibiotic properties of a wide range of soil fungi.

Waksman set up a team of about 50 graduate students and assistants to undertake a systematic study of thousands of different soil fungi and other microorganisms. The rediscovery at this time of the power of penicillin against gram-positive bacteria likely provided further incentive to Waksman to find an antibiotic effective against gram-negative bacteria, which include the kind that causes tuberculosis.

In 1940, Waksman became head of Rutgers' department of microbiology. In that year too, with the help of Boyd Woodruff, he isolated the antibiotic actinomycin. Named for the actinomycetes (rod- or filament-shaped bacteria) from which it was isolated, this compound also proved too toxic for human use, but its discovery led to the subsequent finding of variant forms (actinomycin A, B, C, and D), several of which were found to have potent anti-cancer effects. Over the next decade Waksman isolated 10 distinct antibiotics . It is Waksman who first applied the term antibiotic, which literally means against life, to such drugs.

Among these discoveries, Waksman's finding of streptomycin had the largest and most immediate impact. Not only did streptomycin appear nontoxic to humans, however, it was highly effective against gram-negative bacteria. (Prior to this time, the antibiotics available for human use had been active only against the gram-positive strains.) The importance of streptomycin was soon realized. Clinical trials showed it to be effective against a wide range of diseases, most notably tuberculosis.

At the time of streptomycin's discovery, tuberculosis was the most resistant and irreversible of all the major infectious diseases. It could only be treated with a regime of rest and nutritious diet. The tuberculosis bacillus consigned its victims to a lifetime of invalidism and, when it invaded organs other than the lungs, often killed. Sanatoriums around the country were filled with persons suffering the ravages of tuberculosis, and little could be done for them.

Streptomycin changed all of that. From the time of its first clinical trials in 1944, it proved to be remarkably effective against tuberculosis, literally snatching sufferers back from the jaws of death. By 1950, streptomycin was used against seventy different germs that were not treatable with penicillin. Among the diseases treated by streptomycin were bacterial meningitis (an inflammation of membranes enveloping the brain and spinal cord), endocarditis (an inflammation of the lining of the heart and its valves), pulmonary and urinary tract infections, leprosy , typhoid fever , bacillary dysentery , cholera, and bubonic plague .

Waksman arranged to have streptomycin produced by a number of pharmaceutical companies, since demand for it soon skyrocketed beyond the capacity of any single company. Manufacture of the drug became a $50-million-per-year industry. Thanks to Waksman and streptomycin, Rutgers received millions of dollars of income from the royalties. Waksman donated much of his own share to the establishment of an Institute of Microbiology there. He summarized his early researches on the drug in Streptomycin: Nature and Practical Applications (1949). Streptomycin ultimately proved to have some human toxicity and was supplanted by other antibiotics, but its discovery changed the course of modern medicine. Not only did it directly save countless lives, but its development stimulated scientists around the globe to search the microbial world for other antibiotics and medicines.

In 1949, Waksman isolated neomycin, which proved effective against bacteria that had become resistant to streptomycin. Neomycin also found a broad niche as a topical antibiotic. Other antibiotics soon came forth from his Institute of Microbiology. These included streptocin, framicidin, erlichin, candidin, and others. Waksman himself discovered eighteen antibiotics during the course of his career.

Waksman served as director of the Institute for Microbiology until his retirement in 1958. Even after that time, he continued to supervise research there. He also lectured widely and continued to write at the frenetic pace established early in his career. He eventually published more than twenty-five books, among them the autobiography My Life with the Microbes, and hundreds of articles. He was author of popular pamphlets on the use of thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganisms in composting and on the enzymes involved in jelly-making. He wrote biographies of several noted microbiologists, including his own mentor, Jacob Lipman. These works are in addition to his numerous publications in the research literature.

On August 16, 1973, Waksman died suddenly in Hyannis, Massachusetts, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried near the institute to which he had contributed so much over the years. Waksman's honors over his professional career were many and varied. In addition to the 1952 Nobel Prize, Waksman received the French Legion of Honor, a Lasker award for basic medical science, elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received numerous commendations from academies and scholarly societies around the world.

See also Antibiotic resistance, tests for; Bacteria and bacterial infection; Streptococci and streptococcal infections

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Selman Abraham Waksman

Selman Abraham Waksman

The American microbiologist Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of streptomycin.

Selman Abraham Waksman was born on July 2, 1888 in Novaia-Priluka near Kiev in what is now the Ukraine. In 1908 he went to Odessa to study and garnered a matriculation diploma in 1910 from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odessa. He left almost immediately for the United States where he entered Rutgers College (now University) of Agriculture on a scholarship in 1911 and received a bachelor's degree in 1915. While completing work for a master's degree, awarded by Rutgers in 1916, he was a research assistant in soil bacteriology at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

On August 4, 1916, Waksman married Bertha Deborah Mitnik. That same year he became a citizen of the United States. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California in 1918. He returned to New Jersey as microbiologist at the experiment station and as lecturer in soil microbiology at the university. In 1922 his Principles of Soil Microbiology was published.

Waksman became an associate professor at Rutgers in 1925 and professor in 1930. From 1929 until 1939 his major research was on humus, and he published a volume entitled Humus in 1936. From 1931 until 1942 he spent summers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, developing marine bacteriology. In 1940 he was named head of the department of microbiology at Rutgers.

In 1932 Waksman began to direct a project to study tuberculosis germs, particularly what happens to them in the soil. It was known that these microorganisms were somehow destroyed in soil, and Waksman learned that they were destroyed by other microbes. A series of studies on the effect of one kind of microbe on another led him to then begin, in 1939, a systematic search for antibiotics, the substances produced by microorganisms that inhibit or destroy other microorganisms. His search was primarily among the actinomycetes, a group of organisms that he first studied in 1915. This led to the discovery of several antibiotics, the best-known of which is streptomycin.

Waksman discovered streptomycin in 1943 and reported it in the January 1944 Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine. It proved to be the first chemotherapeutic agent able to control tuberculosis and was useful in treating many other diseases, like influenza, meningitis and urinary tract infections.

In 1949 Waksman became director of the Institute of Microbiology founded that year at Rutgers with royalties from the antibiotics discovered by Waksman and his colleagues. He retired in 1958. On August 16, 1973, Waksman died suddenly in Hyannis, Massachusetts, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried near the institute to which he had contributed so much. Waksman's honors over his professional career were many and varied, including the Nobel Prize (1952), recognition by the French Legion of Honor, the Lasker Award, and election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Further Reading

Selman A. Waksman, The Microbes Have Come to Israel, 1967; Waksman, The Antibiotic Era: A History of the Antibiotic and of Their Role in the Conquest of Infection in Other Fields of Human Endeavor, 1975; American Portrait: Dr. Selman Waksman (a videocassette), CBS, Inc., 1984. Waksman's autobiography, My Life with the Microbes (1954), traces the events leading to the discovery of streptomycin. Other sources of information include Theodore L. Sourkes, editor, Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 1901-1965 (rev. ed. 1967); Magill, F. N., editor, The Nobel Prize Winners: Physiology or Medicine, Volume 2, 1944-1969, Salem Press (1991); and Nobel Foundation, Nobel Lectures: Physiology or Medicine, 1942-1962, Volume 3 (1964). □

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Waksman, Selman Abraham

Waksman, Selman Abraham


Selman Waksman changed the course of medical history while investigating how soil microbes defended themselves against invaders. He and coworkers isolated twenty-two new defensive compounds produced by soil microbes and in the process discovered streptomycin , the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis. For his discovery of streptomycin, Waksman received the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Selman Abraham Waksman was born on July 22, 1888, in Priluka, near Kiev, Russia (now the Ukraine). After graduating from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odessa, Russia, in 1910, Waksman immediately immigrated to the United States. In 1911 he enrolled at Rutgers University, where he received a B.S. in 1915 and an M.S. in 1916, both in agriculture. While at Rutgers, Waksman worked with Jacob G. Lipman, another Russian immigrant, whose primary research interest was soil microbiology. After receiving his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1918, Waksman

returned to New Jersey to begin work as a microbiologist and as a part-time instructor at Rutgers. He was appointed professor of soil microbiology at Rutgers in 1930, a position he held until his retirement in 1958. He also established a lab to study marine microbiology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1931.

Although Waksman was involved in many areas of soil microbiology, it was his interest and expertise in the life-and-death struggles between soil microbes that eventually led to a cure for tuberculosis. In 1932 the American National Association against Tuberculosis asked Waksman to investigate earlier reports that the tubercle bacillus, or the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, was rapidly destroyed in soil. Waksman confirmed those reports and concluded that the tubercle bacillus was probably killed by other bacteria present in the soil. He proposed that the soil bacteria defended themselves by producing an unknown substance that destroyed the tubercle bacillus. He also coined the term "antibiotic" for substances produced by one microorganism that suppress the growth of another.

Waksman and his collaborators grew a batch of a soil microorganism called Actinomyces griseus and isolated their first antibiotic from the brew in 1940. They called it actinomycin, after the species of microorganism from which it was isolated. In 1942 they isolated streptothricin. Like actinomycin, it was too toxic to use in humans, but unlike actinomycin, it destroyed the tubercle bacillus. Encouraged by these discoveries, Waksman continued to test, or screen , other soil microbes for their ability to produce antibiotics with activity against the bacteria that caused tuberculosis (now known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis ).

Waksman and his colleagues screened more than 10,000 different soil microbes before they isolated streptomycin in 1943. Streptomycin was what they were looking for: It destroyed the tubercle bacillus and was safe enough to test in humans. Subsequent clinical trials proved that streptomycin cured several types of tuberculosis and that it was safe enough to prescribe for a variety of gram-negative bacterial infections. Even after sixty years, streptomycin continues to be used in the battle against tuberculosis and other life-threatening infections.

Waksman died on August 16, 1973, and is buried in a churchyard in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

see also Antiobiotics.

Thomas M. Zydowsky

Internet Resources

"The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1952." Nobel e-Museum. Available from <>.

"Selman WaksmanBiography." Nobel e-Museum. Available from <>.

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Waksman, Selman Abraham

Selman Abraham Waksman (wäks´mən), 1888–1973, American microbiologist, b. Priluka, Russia, grad. Rutgers (B.S. 1915), Ph.D. Univ. of California, 1918. He went to the United States in 1910 and was naturalized in 1916. He taught at Rutgers from 1918 and was a professor there from 1930. At the New Jersey State Agricultural Experiment station, where he became microbiologist in 1921, Waksman and his associates made studies of the decomposition of organic matter by microorganisms, of the origin and nature of humus, and of the production of substances detrimental to certain bacteria. He was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin and of its value in treating tuberculosis, but the discovery of the antibiotic actually was made by Albert Schatz, a graduate student working in Waksman's laboratory who had been recognized by Waksman and Rutgers as co-discoverer after a lawsuit. In addition to many scientific papers Waksman wrote Enzymes (with W. C Davison, 1926); Principles of Soil Microbiology (1927); The Soil and the Microbe (with R. L. Starkey, 1931); Humus (1936); Microbial Antagonisms and Antibiotic Substances (1945); The Conquest of Tuberculosis (1964); and The Actinomycetes (1967).

See study by P. Pringle (2012).

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"Waksman, Selman Abraham." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 28 Apr. 2017 <>.

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Waksman, Selman Abraham

Waksman, Selman Abraham (1888–1973) US microbiologist, b. Russia. He received the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery (1943) of the antibiotic streptomycin. He developed techniques for extracting antibiotics from various microorganisms and discovered new ones, including neomycin.

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