Research on antibiotics receives historical recognition

05/10/05

Research leading to the discovery of streptomycin – the first effective pharmaceutical treatment for tuberculosis – will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark at Rutgers University in a special ceremony in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on May 24. The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, sponsors the landmarks program.

Beginning in the 1930s, Selman Waksman, Ph.D., and his students began the search for antibiotics produced from actinomycetes, microbes in the soil that are related to bacteria and fungi. The culmination was the isolation of streptomycin in 1943 by Albert Schatz, a graduate student of Waksman's, using soil screening methods developed by Waksman. 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 bacteria.

Streptomycin was the third antimicrobial agent isolated under Waksman's direction at Martin Hall at Cook College, Rutgers University. Streptomycin, however, was the first agent not toxic to humans, and it attacked a type of bacteria resistant to penicillin. In addition to treating tuberculosis, streptomycin was effective against typhoid fever, cholera, bubonic plague and other diseases. Among the other antibiotics isolated in Waksman's laboratory was neomycin, still used as a topical antibacterial agent.

William F. Carroll, Ph.D., president of the Society, will present a commemorative bronze plaque to Tim Casey, Ph.D., Dean of Academic and Student Programs at Cook College, Rutgers University. H. Boyd Woodruff, Ph.D., who isolated the first two actinomycete antibiotics, will be the featured speaker. The award presentation takes place in conjunction with the ACS Middle Atlantic Regional Meeting. The MARM meeting is being held on the nearby Busch Campus of Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, May 22-25.

Selman Waksman was born in Russia in 1888. He immigrated to the United States in 1910 and entered Rutgers University a few years later. After completing graduate work at the University of California, Waksman joined the Rutgers faculty in 1918. Even as an undergraduate student, Waksman studied actinomycetes in the soil, but it was not until late 1930s that he turned his attention to the searching for microbes that attacked other microbes.

Waksman received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1952 for "ingenious, systematic and successful studies of the soil microbes" that led to the discovery of streptomycin. He died in 1973.

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