Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nobel Laureate: Selman Waksman


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1952

"for his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis"

Selman Abraham Waksman (1888 - 1973) won the Noble Prize in 1952. The award was for discovering streptomycin.

Waksman was a soil microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey (USA). In the 1930s, after the success of penicillin, he decided to change the focus of his research and look for more antibiotics. He reasoned that soil microorganisms should be a good source of novel anti-bacterial drugs.

Streptomycin was the most famous of the many antibiotics discovered in Waksman's lab. It was largely due to the dedicated work of a graduate student, Albert Schatz, who first identified streptomycin's potent effect on gram negative bacteria in October 1943. Over the next few years, Waksman became famous for discovering streptomycin and Schatz was all but forgotten.

In 1950, Schatz sued his former supervisor for recognition, and a share of the royalties. The case was settled out of court with Rutgers agreeing that Schatz and Waksman would be identified as co-discoverers of streptomycin. Schatz received a share of the royalties.

In spite of this settlement, the Nobel Prize committee awarded the prize to Wakesman and not to Waksman and Schatz. This was mildly controversial at the time but didn't qualify as a major scandal. It seems more egregious today.

The issue is part of a continuing controversy about how to attribute recognition when graduate students are working under the direction of their supervisors. There's no better way to start a fight than to bring this up with a group of graduate students. Are they apprentices, slaves, or collaborators?

I am indebted to Philip Johnson of York University (Toronto, Canada) for alerting me to the controversy and for sending along this excellent article about Albert Schatz.

Waksman does not specifically mention Schatz's contribution in his Nobel lecture but he is mentioned in the presentation speech (see below) in an obvious attempt to minimize his contribution. Knowing what we know now, should the Nobel Prize website be modified to include a discussion of the controversy? I think it should.

Nobel Laureates
In 1940 Dr.Waksman and his collaborator had succeeded in isolating the first antibiotic, which was called «actinomycin» and it was very toxic. In 1942 another antibiotic was detected and studied, called «streptothricin». This had a high degree of activity against many bacteria and also against the tubercle bacillus. Further studies revealed that streptothricin was too toxic. During the streptothricin studies Dr. Waksman and his collaborators developed a series of test-methods, which turned out to be very useful in the isolation of streptomycin in 1943.

Encouraged by the discovery of streptothricin and stimulated by the triumphal development of penicillin treatment, the research team headed by Dr.Waksman continued their untiring search for new antibiotic-producing microbes. Before the discovery of streptomycin no less than 10,000 different soil microbes had been studied for their antibiotic activity. Dr. Waksman directed this work and distributed the various lines of research among his young assistants. One of these was Albert Schatz, who had previously worked with Dr. Waksman for 2 months and in June 1943 returned to the laboratory. Dr. Waksman gave him the task of isolating new species of Actinomyces. After a few months he isolated two strains of Actinomyces which were shown to be identical with Streptomyces griseus, discovered by Dr. Waksman in 1915. In contrast to the previous one the rediscovered microbe was shown to have antibiotic activity. To this antibiotic Dr. Waksman gave the name «streptomycin». He studied the antibiotic effect of streptomycin with Schatz and Bugie and found that it was active against several bacteria including the tubercle bacillus. These preliminary studies were completed in a relatively short time, thanks to the clear principles which had been set out previously by Dr. Waksman for the study of streptothricin.

The images of the Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation (© The Nobel Foundation). They are used here, with permission, for educational purposes only.

1 comment:

  1. I am indebted to Philip Johnson of York University (Toronto, Canada) for alerting me

    Not the same Phillip Johnson who is regarded as the father of intelligent design, I take it. (Don't bother to reply: I know the answer).

    More seriously, this is a very interesting article. I didn't know about this controversy. Before reading the whole of it I thought you might be referring to the Nobel Prize for insulin (though the date of 1952 didn't seem right).