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In 1943, Selman Abraham Waksman (July 22, 1888-August 16, 1973) led a team of Rutgers University researchers that isolated streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis (TB) in humans. In 1952, Waksman received the Nobel Prize for this discovery.
Waksman grew up in the small Russian village of Novaya Priluka. In 1910, he settled in New Jersey, where a cousin operated a small farm. An interest in scientific farming brought him to nearby Rutgers College of Agriculture, where he earned a bachelor's degree in science in 1915 and a master's degree a year later. He completed his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2 years, and returned to Rutgers to take a position as lecturer in soil microbiology.
Waksman preferred the term "microbiology" to the conventional "bacteriology" because "not the bacteria but the fungi and the actinomycetes formed my major interests among the microorganisms."1 By the 1930s, he was a leading figure in microbiology, attracting talented graduate students, including Rene Dubos, whose work led to the discovery in 1939 of gramicidin, the first clinically useful topical antibiotic.
Dubos' success and the introduction of penicillin prompted Waksman to put his graduate students and assistants to work looking for antibiotics. In 1943, a Waksman student, Albert Schatz, isolated streptomycin. In 1944, clinical trials demonstrated the drug's effectiveness against gram-negative bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Despite substantial problems with toxicity and drug resistance, streptomycin soon formed the foundation of multidrug therapies for TB.
With the introduction and use of antibiotics, mortality of TB was reduced drastically. In the United States, from 1945 to 1955, TB mortality decreased from 39.9 deaths per 100,000 population2 to 9.1. Around the world, TB remained (and remains) a substantial health problem, but until the emergence of multidrug-resistant TB, many in the United States shared Waksman's optimism, expressed in 1964, that "the final chapter of the battle against tuberculosis appears to be at hand."3
Selman Abraham Waksman, PhD. JAMA. 1999;282(11):1030. doi:10.1001/jama.282.11.1030-JWR0915-2-1