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Medicine: Man of the Soil

4 minute read

People are always asking greying Microbiologist Selman Abraham Waksman, 60, how he discovered the wonder drug streptomycin in 1943. Modest Dr. Waksman (rhymes with phlox-man) has a stock answer which makes it sound pretty simple. He merely examined about 10,000 cultures, he explains. Only 1,000 would kill bacteria in preliminary tests; only 100 looked promising in later tests; only ten were isolated and described; one of the ten proved to be streptomycin. It just happened that streptomycin was the first effective drug that doctors had ever found to fight tuberculosis.

Dr. Waksman’s slow, unspectacular search for new antibiotics still goes on. In the past ten years he and his associates at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University, New Brunswick have examined more than 100,000 cultures of organisms found in the soil of nearby farms.

Last week Scientist Waksman (Ph.D. University of California) announced a new, promising, greyish-colored antibiotic which he called neomycin. Like streptomycin, it is derived from actinomycetes. a group of tiny organisms that are in a twilight evolutionary zone between molds and bacteria. The first preliminary tests made since it was developed last summer look good; it may, eventually, prove better than streptomycin. Dr. Waksman and Hubert A. Lechevalier, a graduate student who worked with him, reported their discovery in Science.

T.B. & Golden Bug. In the test tube, neomycin worked against strains of tuberculosis bacilli which might become resistant to streptomycin (i.e., learn how to flourish alongside streptomycin). The bacilli did not become resistant to neomycin as they had to the older drug. Tests with animals are not yet complete, because there has not been enough of the stuff to work with. But in mice and on embryos from chicken eggs it worked against Staphylococcus aureus (the “golden bug” which causes boils and abscesses) and against Salmonella schottmülleri (which causes a kind of paratyphoid fever). One bug is affected by streptomycin, the other resists it; neomycin hits both.

One trouble with streptomycin is that it may make patients dizzy. So far, the new neomycin has had only a slight harmful effect, or none at all, on laboratory animals. Like penicillin, neomycin may possibly work when taken by mouth. Streptomycin must be injected. But headline writers who shout that neomycin is already a better drug for tuberculosis than streptomycin get a pained look from Dr. Waksman. He does not know yet when tests on human patients can get started.

No Garden, No Fish. Dr. Waksman, often called the dean of U.S. researchers in antibiotics, was born of Jewish parents in Priluki, a Russian peasant village near Kiev. He came to the U.S. at 22. In 1915 he got a job as research assistant at the experiment station and began working with soil microorganisms, the starting point of the antibiotics. In 1939 he began studying the relation of the soil organisms to disease. He still keeps in his littered desk samples of the first antibiotic he isolated, in 1940. Called actinomycin, it proved too poisonous for clinical use. But he went on to find others, and to collect some top scientific honors.

Selman Waksman is a soil expert, but he cannot find time for gardening; he is an authority on marine microorganisms, but he never goes fishing. He plugs away at his molds, has written some 300 scientific papers and half a dozen books, spends much of his time away from the laboratory poring over scientific books. He occasionally reads a novel, but is bored unless it has “social values.” (“Relations of man to man,” he says, “are as important as relations of microbe to microbe.”)

He likes to travel, and has returned several times to Russia to lecture, most recently in 1946. He was, he thinks, one of the last U.S. scientists to visit the Soviet Union. He still feels that men of science are the best hope for bringing understanding between nations. But trying to peddle that idea in the U.S.S.R., he says, was like “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

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