Scientist Spotlight: Selman Waksman

Ethan Chandler: Brona. It means “sadness” in Gaelic.
Vanessa Ives: Does she live up to the name?
Ethan Chandler: I can’t tell. She has consumption.
Vanessa Ives: Then she will. Who doesn’t love a lost cause?
-Penny Dreadful, Showtime.
In honor of his recent birthday on July 22nd, we focus our scientist spotlight on Selman Waksman. Waksman was born in the Ukraine in 1888 and moved to the United States in 1910. He studied at Rutgers College, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science. He went on to attend University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in biochemistry. Waksman would circle back to his first alma mater and join Rutgers College as a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology1. This is where his life’s work began.
Selman Waksman.
At its peak, tuberculosis (TB) caused roughly 25% of all deaths in the 1800s. In urban/industrialized areas, 70-90% of people were infected, with 80% of them succumbing to the disease2. TB was also known as consumption due to its ability to cause patients to be “consumed” and lose weight during disease progression. Additional symptoms include fever, chills, loss of appetite, and fatigue. Before drugs and antibiotics were introduced, there were 130,000 new cases of TB annually in the United States.
An x-ray of a TB patient’s lungs. Triangles are bilateral pulmonary infiltrate. Black arrows point to a "caving formation".

A public service announcement by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of TB.
Albert Schatz discovered streptomycin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic isolated from the actinobacterium Streptomyces griseus, as a graduate student in Waksman’s lab. Encouraged by results from early tests, Schatz went on to test streptomycin against the danger of the time, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB. Thankfully, streptomycin was found to be effective at treating M. tuberculosis. After rounds of testing, streptomycin was finally released to the public in 1947. Initial trials demonstrated some side effects such as loss of hearing or sight. Even back then, there were fears M. tuberculosis might gain antibiotic resistance. When combined with other drugs like para-aminosalicylic acid and isoniazid, streptomycin was even more effective as a combined therapy treatment.
The use of streptomycin helped to drastically decrease the mortality rate associated with TB3. Despite this, TB has not been eradicated. In the United States, over 9,400 cases of TB were reported in 2014. In 2013, 360,000 TB cases were diagnosed in Europe. Worldwide in 2013, the World Health Organization estimated that 1.5 million people were killed by TB. Though streptomycin was a paramount discovery, the war against TB continues, especially given concerns of antibiotic resistance.

TB is still a global threat. In fact, World TB Day is March 24th and seeks to stop TB-related deaths. Image from WHO.
However, the discovery was not without its controversy. Waksman would minimize Schatz’s role in the discovery of streptomycin. Waksman came to gain sole credit for the discovery, often failing to even mention Schatz by name. Later on, Schatz would seek litigation, with the two of them settling out of court in an understanding that they were co-discoverers of streptomycin. Still, Waksman got most of the fame and honor, receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1952 for his streptomycin work. Schatz was excluded as he was only a lab assistant1.
Who really discovered streptomycin?
Aside from streptomycin, Waksman and his lab discovered a variety of antibiotics, including actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin, grisein, fradicin, candicidin, and neomycin, which is used in the popular product Neosporin. In fact, Waksman himself coined the term “antibiotics” for these drugs that displayed anti-bacterial effects. Waksman is credited with being an author or co-author on over 400 publications and has been honored in several ways, including lending his name to1:
  • Waksman Foundation for Microbiology (Rutgers University)
  • Waksman Institute of Microbiology (Rutgers University)
  • Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology (given by the National Academy of Sciences)

Image by Chris Mead of Miami Ad School.
Despite some controversy, Waksman has doubtlessly earned the title “Father of Antibiotics”. His work has saved countless lives and created a sturdy foundation for the discovery of new antibiotics and drug treatments. Have any thoughts on Waksman and his studies? E-mail us at

Just when I thought I got the hang of science… Zoolander, Paramount Pictures.
Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.
  1. Selman Waksman Wikipedia
  2. Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800-1922
  3. Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science
  4. 27 Kansas students test positive for tuberculosis
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