Selman Waksman

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Selman Waksman
Selman Waksman NYWTS.jpg
Born Selman Abraham Waksman
(1888-07-22)July 22, 1888
Novaya Pryluka, near Kiev, Russian Empire
Died August 16, 1973(1973-08-16) (aged 85)
Woods Hole, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States
Residence Woods Hole, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States
Citizenship United States of America (After 1916)
Fields Biochemistry and Microbiology
Alma mater Rutgers University
University of California, Berkeley
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1952)
Leeuwenhoek Medal (1950)
Spouse Deborah B. Mitnik (1 child) (died 1974)

Selman Abraham Waksman (July 22, 1888 – August 16, 1973) was a Russian-born, Jewish-American inventor, biochemist and microbiologist whose research into organic substances—largely into organisms that live in soil—and their decomposition promoted the discovery of Streptomycin, and several other antibiotics. A professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University for four decades, he discovered over twenty antibiotics (a word which he coined) and introduced procedures that have led to the development of many others. The proceeds earned from the licensing of his patents funded a foundation for microbiological research, which established the Waksman Institute of Microbiology located on Rutgers University's Busch Campus in Piscataway, New Jersey (USA). In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition "for his discovery of "streptomycin," the first antibiotic active against tuberculosis." Waksman was later accused of playing down the role of Albert Schatz, a PhD student who did the work under Waksman's supervision to discover streptomycin.

In 2005 Selman Waksman was granted an ACS National Historical Chemical Landmark in recognition of the significant work of his lab in isolating more than fifteen antibiotics, including streptomycin, which was the first effective treatment for tuberculosis.[1]


Selman Waksman was born on July 22, 1888, to Jewish parents, in Nova Pryluka, Podolia Governorate, Russian Empire,[2] now Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. He was the son of Fradia (London) and Jacob Waksman.[3] He immigrated to the United States in 1910, shortly after receiving his matriculation diploma from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odessa, and became a naturalised American citizen six years later.

Waksman attended Rutgers College (now Rutgers University), where he was graduated in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Agriculture. He continued his studies at Rutgers, receiving a Master of Science (MSc) the following year. During his graduate study, he worked under J. G. Lipman at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers performing research in soil bacteriology. Waksman was then appointed as Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley from where he was awarded his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Biochemistry in 1918.

Later he joined the faculty at Rutgers University in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology. It was at Rutgers that Waksman's team discovered several antibiotics, including actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin, streptomycin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin, candidin, and others. Two of these, streptomycin and neomycin, have found extensive application in the treatment of numerous infectious diseases. Streptomycin was the first antibiotic that could be used to cure the disease tuberculosis. Waksman is credited with coining the term antibiotics, to describe compounds derived from other living organisms such as penicillin, though the term was first used by the French dermatologist François Henri Hallopeau, in 1871, to describe a substance opposed to the development of life.[4]

Many awards and honors were showered on Waksman after 1940, most notably the Nobel Prize in 1952; the Star of the Rising Sun, bestowed on him by the emperor of Japan, and the rank of Commandeur in the French Légion d'honneur.[2][5]

Selman Waksman died on August 16, 1973 and was interred at the Crowell Cemetery in Woods Hole, Barnstable County, Massachusetts. His tombstone is inscribed simply as Selman Abraham Waksman: Scientist, followed by his dates of birth and death, and the phrase "The earth will open and bring forth salvation" in Hebrew and English, which is a reference to Isaiah 45:8.[2][6]

He was the father of Byron Waksman, involved in Multiple sclerosis research .

Other little known contributions of Selman Waksman include anti-fouling paints for the Navy, the use of enzymes in detergents, and the use of Concord grape root stock to protect the French Vineyards from fungal infection.


Waksman had been studying the Streptomyces family of organism since his college student days and had, for a time, been studying the organism Streptomyces griseus. Streptomycin was isolated from S. griseus and found effective against tuberculosis by one of Waksman's graduate students, Albert Schatz.[7]


The details and credit for the discovery of streptomycin and its usefulness as an antibiotic were strongly contested by Schatz, eventually leading to litigation.[8] Waksman and Rutgers settled out of court with Schatz, resulting in financial remuneration and entitlement to "legal and scientific credit as co-discoverer of streptomycin."[9][10]

Systematic experiments to test several strains of antibiotic against several different disease organisms were under way in Waksman's laboratory at the time. Their classic approach was to explore a complete matrix with rows consisting of antibiotics and columns consisting of different diseases. The bacteria which produced the antibiotic streptomycin was discovered by Schatz in the farmland outside his lab, and tested by him.[9] Waksman, however, eventually came to claim sole credit for the discovery.


Neomycin is derived from actinomycetes and was discovered by Waksman and Hubert A. Lechevalier, one of Waksman's graduate students. The discovery was published in the journal Science.[11]

Nobel Prize

Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 "for his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis."[12] In the award speech, Waksman was called "one of the greatest benefactors to mankind," as the result of the discovery of streptomycin.[13] Schatz protested being left out of the award, but the Nobel committee ruled that he was a mere lab assistant working under an eminent scientist.[9]

In 1951,[14] using half of his personal patent royalties, Waksman created the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology.[15] At a meeting of the board of Trustees of the Foundation, held in July 1951 he urged the building of a facility for work in microbiology, named the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, which is located on the Busch campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. First president of the Foundation, Waksman was succeeded in this position by his son, Byron H. Waksman, from 1970 to 2000.

The Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology of the National Academy of Sciences is given in his honor.[16]


Selman Waksman was author or co-author of over 400 scientific papers, as well as twenty-eight books[2] and 14 scientific pamphlets.

  • Enzymes (1926)
  • Humus: origin, chemical composition, and importance in nature (1936, 1938)
  • Principles of Soil Microbiology (1938)
  • My Life with the Microbes (1954) (an autobiography)

See also


  1. "Selman Waksman and Antibiotics". National Historic Chemical Landmarks. American Chemical Society. Retrieved 2014-02-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "The Foundation and Its History". (No further authorship information available). Retrieved January 11, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. ref. needed!
  5. ["Dr. Selman Waksman". The Waksman Institute at Rutgers website (No further authorship information available). Retrieved January 17, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. This verse is significantly different from the original text of Isaiah 45:8 which states, in the King James Version, as "Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it."
  7. Andrew Jack (April 14, 2012). "Germ warfare". Financial Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The Schatz v. Waksman Lawsuit – 1950".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Pringle, Peter (June 11, 2012). "Notebooks Shed Light on a Discovery, and a Mentor's Betrayal". The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Mistiaen, Veronique (November 2, 2002). "Time, and the great healer". London: The Guardian. Retrieved April 13, 2010. The story of streptomycin – of scientific triumphs, all-too-human scientists and a long quest for justice – lies somewhere between these two men.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Man of the Soil". Time (magazine). April 4, 1949.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Official Notice of Award
  13. Award Ceremony Speech
  14. "Foundation History".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Waksman Foundation for Microbiology homepage".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Selman A Walksman Award". Retrieved July 29, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links