Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman's tarnished legacy

July 13, 2012
by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer
This month marks the birth of Selman Abraham Waksman – the Father of Antibiotics (born July 1888). But did he fairly and squarely earn this esteemed moniker?

At first glance, it would seem so. In total, the Ukraineborn professor identified more than 20 antibiotics, including actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin and candidin, among others. Waksman even coined the word ‘antibiotic’ in 1942.

Yet it was a team effort that led to the discovery of streptomycin and its effectiveness against tuberculosis, but Waksman unjustly took full credit for the finding.

While his 23-year-old graduate student, Albert Schatz, was carrying out streptomycin research in his Rutgers University basement laboratory, Waksman never visited him because he wanted to be as far away from the tubercle bacillus as possible. The professor only expressed interest once he realized that Schatz was onto a significant discovery. It was actually Schatz who solely isolated the antibiotic in 1943 after months of painstaking work.

In 1946, at Waksman’s insistence, he and Schatz signed the streptomycin patent assignment. This outlined that both men would receive the princely sum of $1 each, signing all royalty rights over to Rutgers. Schatz permitted this only because he wanted to see streptomycin swiftly and cheaply made available to the public.

Contrary to this agreement, Waksman secretly received $350,000 in royalties, although he publicly denied this. Meanwhile, the Rutgers Research and Endowment Foundation received $2,600,000 in royalties. Waksman contributed nearly 80 percent of his royalties toward the building and support of the Institute of Microbiology, which he established in association with Rutgers. And of the remaining 20 percent of the royalties assigned to him personally, Waksman used half to set up the Foundation for Microbiology.

Schatz upon discovering the secret dealings was understandably bitter and promptly sued both Waksman and the University in 1950. The case was settled out of court. In that settlement, Waksman acknowledged that Schatz was “entitled to credit legally and scientifically as co-discoverer, with Dr. Selman A.Waksman, of streptomycin.” The lawsuit also uncovered Waksman’s covert agreement with a pharmaceutical company which paid him $300 a month for exclusive information about the research going on in his laboratories, along with patent rights. While he was victorious in his lawsuit, the aftermath saw the scientific community almost completely shun Schatz.

Although the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded in 1952 for the streptomycin discovery, it was only Waksman who collected it. Not until 1990 – two decades after Waksman’s death — did Schatz finally receive his rightful merit.

Prior to his kerfuffle, Waksman respectably received his doctorate from Berkeley’s University of California, soon securing a position at the Rutgers Bacteriology Department and later accepting an appointment as microbiologist at the Experiment Station and as lecturer in soil microbiology at the University. He was appointed associate professor in 1925, professor in 1930, and when the Department of Microbiology was organized in 1940, he became professor of microbiology and head of the department. Aside from this, he was also President of the American Society for Microbiology.

Dodgy dealings aside, in 1952 the professor was ironically voted as one of the most outstanding 100 people in the world. Throughout his life, Waksman snagged 66 awards and 22 honorary degrees for his scientific work and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1942. He also published more than 400 scientific papers and wrote, alone or with others, 18 books.

Waksman died in August 1973, leaving a plethora of achievements in his wake. One wonders though: how many of these were truly his own?