This Day in Jewish History / A Professor and His Student Make Antibiotic History

On this day in 1943, a major breakthrough against tuberculosis took place in a lab at Rutgers University where a professor and his grad student made antibiotic history.

On this day in 1943, the antibiotic streptomycin was first identified in the Rutgers University laboratory of Selman Abraham Waksman, in Piscataway, New Jersey. Streptomycin was the first antibiotic to be effective against tuberculosis, which throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the most significant health threats in the world.

Although Waksman received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1952 for “his discovery of streptomycin,” the work was shared by graduate student Albert Schatz. When only Waksman was publicly credited for the discovery, Schatz sued for recognition as a co-discover and for a share of the royalties from the patent of the drug. In an out-of-court settlement, he received 3 percent of the royalties. Schatz received his Ph.D. in 1945, writing his thesis on streptomycin’s discovery.

Both Waksman (1888-1973) and Schatzman (1920-2005) were Jews of Eastern European extraction: Waksman was born in what is today Ukraine and arrived in the United States in 1910; Schatz was born in Norwich, Connecticut to parents of Russian and English birth. It was Waksman who coined the term “antibiotics” – referring to microorganisms that can be used to fight other microorganisms -- and he was involved in the development of 15 different antibiotic medications, including neomycin, used in topical antibiotics and antibacterials like Neosporin. Although Waksman had been working for years with Streptomyces griseus, the species of bacteria from which streptomycin was derived, it was Schatz who actually isolated the streptomycin bactericidal antibiotic.

Streptomycin began its assault on TB in 1952, when an oral application of the drug, Isoniazid, was developed. In fact, an effective immunization (as opposed to mere therapy) was created in France in 1906, called Bacille Calmette-Guerin, but it only began to be used with large population groups after World War II. BCG is still used in the United States today, but has been found to have varying rates of success in different countries.