C  O  N  T  E  N  T  S

Selman Waksman: From Tsarist Russia to
New Jersey

Actinomycetes and the search for antibiotics
The trials of streptomycin
The later years
Landmark designation and acknowledgments

Selman Waksman and Antibiotics


"The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them." Ecclesiasticus, xxxviii, 41

Selman Waksman called his autobiography My Life with the Microbes. That is also the title of the first chapter of the book, which begins "I have devoted my life to the study of microbes, those infinitesimal forms of life which play such important roles in the life of man, animals, and plants. I have studied their nature, life processes, and their relation to man, helping him and destroying himů I have contemplated the destructive capacities of some microbes and the constructive activities of others. I have tried to find ways and means for discouraging the first and encouraging the second."2

It was a particular kind of microbe found in the soil that intrigued Waksman: the actinomycetes, a group of microorganisms closely related to bacteria. During his long career studying actinomycetes, Waksman realized that many of these microorganisms could inhibit the growth of other microorganisms. That led to the systematic search, starting in the late 1930s, for antimicrobial agents to fight disease, a search made critical by the approach of war.

Waksman and his students, in their laboratory at Rutgers University, established the first screening protocols to detect antimicrobial agents produced by microorganisms. This deliberate search for chemotherapeutic agents contrasts with the discovery of penicillin, which came through a chance observation by Alexander Fleming, who noted that a mold contaminant on a Petri dish culture had inhibited the growth of a bacterial pathogen. During the 1940s, Waksman and his students isolated more than fifteen antibiotics, the most famous of which was streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis.



1 Waksman cited this passage, in the quoted translation, at the beginning of the published version of his Nobel Lecture, given on December 12, 1952. "Streptomycin: background, isolation, properties, and utilization," Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1942-1962 (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1964), p. 370.

2 Selman Waksman, My Life with the Microbes, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), p.3

 

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Selman Waksman: From Tsarist Russia to New Jersey | Actinomycetes and the search for antibiotics
The trials of streptomycin | The later years | Landmark designation and acknowledgments

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