Selman Abraham Waksman
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
"The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1952." Nobel e-Museum. Available from http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates .
"Selman Waksman—Biography." Nobel e-Museum. Available from http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates .