Selman Abraham Waksman

The American microbiologist Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of streptomycin.

Selman Abraham Waksman was born on July 2, 1888 in Novaia-Priluka near Kiev in what is now the Ukraine. In 1908 he went to Odessa to study and garnered a matriculation diploma in 1910 from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odessa. He left almost immediately for the United States where he entered Rutgers College (now University) of Agriculture on a scholarship in 1911 and received a bachelor's degree in 1915. While completing work for a master's degree, awarded by Rutgers in 1916, he was a research assistant in soil bacteriology at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

On August 4, 1916, Waksman married Bertha Deborah Mitnik. That same year he became a citizen of the United States. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California in 1918. He returned to New Jersey as microbiologist at the experiment station and as lecturer in soil microbiology at the university. In 1922 his Principles of Soil Microbiology was published.

Waksman became an associate professor at Rutgers in 1925 and professor in 1930. From 1929 until 1939 his major research was on humus, and he published a volume entitled Humus in 1936. From 1931 until 1942 he spent summers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, developing marine bacteriology. In 1940 he was named head of the department of microbiology at Rutgers.

In 1932 Waksman began to direct a project to study tuberculosis germs, particularly what happens to them in the soil. It was known that these microorganisms were somehow destroyed in soil, and Waksman learned that they were destroyed by other microbes. A series of studies on the effect of one kind of microbe on another led him to then begin, in 1939, a systematic search for antibiotics, the substances produced by microorganisms that inhibit or destroy other microorganisms. His search was primarily among the actinomycetes, a group of organisms that he first studied in 1915. This led to the discovery of several antibiotics, the best-known of which is streptomycin.

Waksman discovered streptomycin in 1943 and reported it in the January 1944 Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine. It proved to be the first chemotherapeutic agent able to control tuberculosis and was useful in treating many other diseases, like influenza, meningitis and urinary tract infections.

In 1949 Waksman became director of the Institute of Microbiology founded that year at Rutgers with royalties from the antibiotics discovered by Waksman and his colleagues. He retired in 1958. On August 16, 1973, Waksman died suddenly in Hyannis, Massachusetts, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried near the institute to which he had contributed so much. Waksman's honors over his professional career were many and varied, including the Nobel Prize (1952), recognition by the French Legion of Honor, the Lasker Award, and election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Further Reading on Selman Abraham Waksman

Selman A. Waksman, The Microbes Have Come to Israel, 1967; Waksman, The Antibiotic Era: A History of the Antibiotic and of Their Role in the Conquest of Infection in Other Fields of Human Endeavor, 1975; American Portrait: Dr. Selman Waksman (a videocassette), CBS, Inc., 1984. Waksman's autobiography, My Life with the Microbes (1954), traces the events leading to the discovery of streptomycin. Other sources of information include Theodore L. Sourkes, editor, Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 1901-1965 (rev. ed. 1967); Magill, F. N., editor, The Nobel Prize Winners: Physiology or Medicine, Volume 2, 1944-1969, Salem Press (1991); and Nobel Foundation, Nobel Lectures: Physiology or Medicine, 1942-1962, Volume 3 (1964).